Lactose Intolerance: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

lactose intolerance

Lactose Intolerance affects about 75 percent of people in the world.

It is a digestive issue where your body does not digest the sugar lactose present in dairy products.

This adversely affects the quality of your life and causes you to have regular digestive problems.

If you have it, you will be unable to enjoy milk, yogurt, and other dairy products.

This article discusses the condition in detail. Learn about its causes, symptoms, and treatment below.

lactose intolerance causes

Lactose Intolerance Causes and Meaning

Lactose is a sugar present in milk.

Plus, it is broken down by the enzyme lactase in the small intestine.

It breaks down into glucose and galactose.

They easily absorb into the bloodstream through the lining of the intestine.

However, if your small intestine does not produce enough lactase then it will remain undigested.

It enters the colon and interacts with the bacteria there.

Low levels of lactase are fine but extremely low levels will lead to lactose malabsorption.

They are of three types:

Primary 

This type has a natural decline of lactase as you age.

Infants and babies have enough lactase as they are regularly breastfed which naturally contains a certain amount of lactose.

So they digest it with the help of lactase.

However, as they age and replace milk with other products to provide nutrition, the lactase levels drop and you become lactase deficient.

Though, there is still enough for them to digest the lactose that they consume in dairy products.

As you age, it keeps dropping and falls sharply well into adulthood.

Therefore, you have difficulty digesting any milk products when you are an adult.

Hence, it is a normal decline that happens gradually over time.

This is the most common type of lactose malabsorption.

Secondary 

You can get secondary lactose intolerance if the lactase production decreases after you got a an injury, disease or surgery related to the small intestine.

Any illness can make the small intestine produce less lactase than usual.

Examples include celiac disease and  Crohn’s disease. 

Therefore, anything that affects the intestine (either a disease or infection) can result in a sharp decline in lactase production.

However, the lactase levels return to normal when you fully treat the underlying infection or disease.

Though, it will take time.

Developmental 

It is a rare form of lactose malabsorption. It occurs in premature babies.

The baby’s body begins lactase product quite late into pregnancy, usually after the 34th week.

However, if the baby is premature then they will have intolerance since birth because their inten=stine does not produce lactase.

Congenital 

Another rarity is inheriting it from birth.

Both the mother and father need to pass on their defective gene to their child.

This way the baby’s body does not produce any lactase since birth.

This means the baby will not be able to take breast milk, neither formula milk.

Since milk is the main food of babies in the first few months, parents need to detect it immediately.

Otherwise, your child will get dehydration due to constant diarrhea which can get life-threatening.

Though, you can easily give your child lactose-free formula milk to continue their nutrient needs.

Therefore, you need to be vigilant if any milk is causing your child trouble even if it rarely happens.

Therefore, there are some people with lactose intolerance and their children who are more susceptible to lactose malabsorption than others.

Which brings us to…

woman not consuming milk

Who Is At Risk?

Lactose malabsorption is very rare in babies.

Though if your child had a premature birth then they at risk of developing it.

This is because the lactase-producing cells only develop in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Hence, if they are born before that or the 34th week, they may be intolerant.

Another risk factor is genetics.

If both you and your partner have some form of intolerance then you are likely to pass on the dominant defective gene to your child.

Since it is related to genes, it affects certain ethnicities more than others.

It is more common in people with Asian, Hispanic, African and American Indian ethnicity.

Therefore, according to the Natural Institutes of Health, lactose malabsorption is more common in Africa and Asia.

Your increasing age is also a risk factor.

Lactase production decreases when you consume other foods and fewer dairy products over time.

Therefore, the more you age, the more susceptible you are to becoming intolerant.

Furthermore, anything injury, disease or treatment that concerns your small intestine can lead to a drop in lactase levels.

This includes infections and bacterial overgrowth.

Moreover, if you had any surgery or chemotherapy near the intestine like the stomach,  or have complications related to that in the intestine, then you are again at risk.

But how will you identify it? More on that below.

woman with a lactose intolerance symptom of pain in stomach

Lactose Intolerance Symptoms

You will feel the signs appearing usually between half an hour to two hours after you consume a dairy product.

The first sign is either abdominal cramps or nausea.

These cramps are indicating the need to go to the washroom because of diarrhea.

You will also feel immediate bloating and will develop gas.

Your stomach will rumble and hurt. In some cases, you may also vomit.

While diarrhea is one of the common signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance, some people may actually get the opposite i.e. constipation.

The lactose that remains undigested leads to water moving in the digestive tract.

As soon as it gets into the colon the bacteria ferment lactose which leads to gas.

As a result, short-chain fatty acids form which causes pain and bloating.

The severity differs from person to person.

If you have very low levels of lactase then your symptoms will be severe.

Moreover, if you consumed a lot of lactose then they will be severe too.

However, you may not be able to restrict dairy products completely out of your life especially if you want your calcium intake.

Therefore, see a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.

blood test for diagnosis

Diagnosis

Tell your symptoms to your doctor and they will recommend a lactose intolerance test. These are as follows:

  • Hydrogen Breath Test 

You are given a high lactose drink.

After you drink it, the medical practitioner measures your hydrogen levels in your breath.

If you have a high reading that indicates your body isn’t digesting and absorbing lactose properly.

Why is that so?

Well, when your body does not produce enough lactase, the bacteria ferment the lactose in the gut.

Fermentation results in a release of gases such as hydrogen which your body absorbs and you eventually exhale.

  • Blood Test 

You will also take a lactose tolerance test to identify the amount of glucose in your bloodstream.

Normally, your body should break down lactose into glucose and galactose.

Hence, you will get a drink full of lactose and after two hours you will get a blood test.

This blood test will check for glucose levels in your bloodstream.

If they are low and do not increase, it means the lactose in your body isn’t breaking down properly.

Hence, indicating a lack of lactase enzyme.

  • Stool Test

This test is usually carried on children.

If the bacteria ferment the lactose in the gut then there might be lactic acid in the stool sample.

Hence, the sample is checked for the presence of lactic acid.

enzyme supplements treatment

Lactose Intolerance Treatment

If you have an underlying condition that caused your intolerance, treating that will replenish your lactase levels too.

However, if it persists then the best way is to cut down on foods that contain lactose to follow a diet of low lactose consumption. More on that later.

However, if you do not wish to do that then you can try supplements and probiotics.

Supplements 

If you lack the enzyme lactase you can take lactase enzyme supplements to help break down lactose.

They are available in the form of tablets or drops to add to your food.

By taking enzyme supplements you do not limit your lactose intake but try to add lactase to your body.

They may still work for some people, however, more research needs to be done to evaluate their efficacy.

Probiotics and Prebiotics

These are microorganisms that facilitate digestion in the intestine.

They are also present in yogurts such as the probiotic Bifidobacteria in an active culture and form.

Prebiotics are bacteria’s food. This type of fiber feeds the bacteria in the intestine which is beneficial for the body.

Both of these can help in the digestion of lactose in your body.

Hence, they are worth a try if supplements do not work out.

Exposure to Lactose

Quite contrary to restricting lactose products is getting more exposure to it.

Consuming more lactose might make your body adapt to it.

Therefore, eventually, it may increase your lactase enzyme production.

While there is less research on it, this is a promising treatment.

In a study, there was a 3 times increase in lactase production after the participants consumed lactose products for 16 days.

However, the easiest of all is to limit your diet to lactose-free products. Find out below.

lactose free lifestyle changes for lactose intolerance

Lifestyle Changes

Cut down on dairy products that contain lactose.

However, reducing them would also mean that you don’t get enough calcium right? Not really!

You can maintain a healthy diet without heavy lactose products.

Eat leafy greens, salmon, broccoli, cereals, nuts, oranges, juices and beans.

All of these are rich in calcium.

If you still want to drink milk then you can look for suitable replacements.

These include soy milk, lactose-free milk, oat milk, hazelnut milk, almond milk, rice milk and coconut milk.

With calcium, you should also maintain your intake of Vitamin D.

Eat eggs and liver and get good sun exposure.

You can also take yogurts and certain cheeses(that don’t contain lactose) to fulfill your calcium and Vitamin D needs.

Though supplements are also an option, try to get good nutrition first.

Limiting lactose does not mean that you have to give up all dairy products all of a sudden.

You can limit your intake and choose alternatives.

For instance, go for skimmed milk rather than pure milk.

You can also reduce your serving if you cannot entirely give up on it.

If you drink milk, try to take it in smaller servings with your meal as it will slow down digestion and you will not feel any symptoms or won’t do so immediately.

Experiment with eating and drinking different dairy products to see what worsens your condition.

Milk might cause you the most trouble followed by icecreams.

However, it is possible that ice cream and cheese are tolerable due to their high fat and low lactose content respectively.

Try different foods and see what is tolerable and you can continue in your diet.

Takeaway 

Lactose intolerance is treatable but it takes time.

It is an uncomfortable condition that can affect your quality of life.

Hence, it is important to treat it rather than keep suffering from it because it is not a big health concern.

We should all strive to eat well to live a healthy and long life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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