Lactose intolerance is a disorder characterized by the inability to digest lactose, the primary sugar found in dairy products.
This disorder is more common than people know and occurs in people who lack the necessary enzyme needed to break down lactose in to simpler sugar molecules.
Lactose intolerance is not necessarily dangerous, but can cause discomfort within 30 minutes to two hours after eating dairy products. This discomfort can include:
What causes lactose intolerance?
Normally, people produce lactose in their small intestine. This enzyme breaks down lactose into two simple sugars – glucose and galactose. These sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream and converted into energy.
People who are classed as lactose intolerant have low levels of lactose – this means lactose molecules are unprocessed as they move down the colon. In the colon, they encounter intestinal bacteria, which feed on the lactose – causing fermentation. Fermentation causes the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance.
This can be a natural result of aging. As children, we have much higher levels of lactose – because milk is our main source of nutrition. As our diet becomes more varied though, the levels of lactose drop, which can lead to the symptoms lactose intolerance.
If you undergo surgery or suffer from an illness of the small intestine, this may also lead to lactose intolerance. This can be reversed though, with the treatment of the underlying problem.
Am I at risk?
The following factors could increase the likelihood of you becoming lactose intolerant:
- Premature birth. Babies tend to develop lactose in the third trimester, just before birth.
- Ethnicity. People of African, Asian or Native American ancestry have a higher chance of being lactose intolerant.
- Age. Some people develop an intolerance of dairy products, as they grow older.
- Intestinal disorders. Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and bacterial overgrowth can lead to lactose intolerance.
- Radiation therapy. People who have had to undergo radiation therapy to fight abdominal cancer may not produce enough lactase.
Is there a cure for lactose intolerance?
Unfortunately, there is no way to change the body’s ability to produce lactose. Treatments for lactose intolerance usually involve lifestyle changes, such as cutting down on dairy products or cutting them out entirely. As long as you are getting all the nutrition your body needs, this should not be a problem.
What can be done to reduce lactose intolerance symptoms?
The first thing to do is cut down on dairy products. Dairy products do provide a lot of calcium, but calcium can either be supplemented or found in other food sources like:
- Kale, Broccoli and Spinach
- Rice or Soy Milk products.
It also helps to be aware of lactose in prepared foods. Many convenience and pre-made foods contain milk-solids or lactose. This can include: processed meats, cereals, non-dairy creamers, breads and salad dressings.
Can I eat dairy products if I’m lactose intolerant?
For most people, being lactose intolerant does not mean cutting out dairy completely. If you introduce milk-based foods slowly you will be able to enjoy dairy products without the nasty side effects.
To incorporate more dairy products into your diet, try the following:
- Take lactose enzyme tablets before meals
- Eat only small amounts of dairy at a time, at the same time as other foods
- Try hard cheeses as they contain less lactose
- Look for lactose-free products in the dairy section of your supermarket
- Try out milk products like yoghurt – the bacteria used to make it naturally produce lactase in the culturing process
How can I ensure I’m getting enough calcium?
Calcium is vitally important for living healthily, as we all know. It provides the building blocks for bones, ensures the heart functions properly and works with other nutrients to regulate how we think and feel.
If you incorporate a good variety of foods into your diet, you should get adequate amounts of calcium. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough, you could always go on a supplement. Speak to your doctor or healthcare professional for advice – they will be able to advise how best to get enough calcium while cutting out the symptoms of lactose intolerance.