Lactose intolerance means that the body cannot easily digest lactose which is a type of natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products. When lactose moves through the large intestine (colon) without being properly digested it can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, belly pain, and bloating. Lactose intolerance is caused by a lactose deficiency or hypolactasia.
In very rare cases individuals have congenital alactasia which is a total absence of lactase caused by a genetic defect which keeps them from being able to digest lactose from infancy, including breast milk. Lactose intolerance is not the same thing as milk allergy which happens when a person’s immune system overreacts to the proteins in milk.
The hydrogen breath test is the most accurate lactose intolerance test and takes about 2.5 hours to complete. A stool acidity test is used to detect lactose intolerance in infants. About 44% of lactose-intolerant women regain the ability to digest lactose during pregnancy. Lactose intolerance occurs mostly among Native Americans, Asians, Africans, and South Americans.
Symptoms include: bloating, pain or cramps in the lower belly, loose stools or diarrhea, flatulence, borborygmi (rumbling stomach), and throwing up.
Lactose intolerance is caused by your small intestine not producing enough of the enzyme lactase to be able to properly digest lactose, also known as milk sugar. A number of factors can cause the lactose in your food to get into the colon instead of being absorbed and processed, some of which include primary lactose intolerance, secondary lactose intolerance, and congenital or developmental lactose intolerance.
When someone has primary lactose intolerance, they’re usually born with the ability to produce plenty of lactase since babies get all of their nutrients from milk. But as you grow older, you start to replace milk with other foods, which causes lactase production to decrease. However, it stays high enough to digest an adult dairy diet. However, in people with primary lactose intolerance, lactase production suddenly stops, which makes it difficult for adults to digest dairy products, especially milk. This type of lactose intolerance usually affects people with African, Hispanic or Asian ancestry, as well as people of Southern European or Mediterranean descent.
Secondary lactose intolerance is caused by the small intestine decreasing lactase production following a surgery, injury or illness involving the small intestine. Some of the risk factors for secondary lactose intolerance include Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and bacterial overgrowth.
Lactose intolerance can be managed by consuming live yogurt cultures containing lactobacilli that are able to digest the lactose in other dairy products. Individuals who are lactose intolerance can consume plant-based “milks” such as soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, coconut milk, oat milk, hemp milk, and peanut milk. There are many forms of low-lactose and lactose-free foods to choose from.
While there is currently no research which shows how lactose intolerance can be prevented, flare ups by those affected can be avoided by figuring out their body’s response to certain foods that contain lactose. Usually, you’ll need to cut down on dairy or eliminate it altogether, depending on how well you tolerate certain foods. If you don’t want to eliminate milk because of calcium needs, you can substitute regular milk for Lactaid, a lactose-free milk beverage. If you’d rather cut out dairy altogether, be sure you’re getting enough calcium by eating foods like spinach, canned salmon, rhubarb, broccoli, pinto beans, oranges, and calcium-fortified products (like juice and bread). You might also try soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, or cashew milk as alternatives to traditional cow’s milk. It’s important to read food labels carefully for ingredients which may trigger a flare up and to exercise caution when eating out.