Lactose is a sugar that is typically found in milk and milk products. Your small intestine- where most digestion and absorption of nutrients takes place- produces an enzyme that is called lactase. This lactase breaks the lactose down into two simpler forms of sugar: galactose and glucose. The body is better equipped to digest these than it is to digest lactose itself.
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest the lactose. This is due to a shortage of lactase in the small intestine. Though it is true that lactose intolerance isn’t dangerous or life-threatening, the symptoms of it can be quite upsetting and distressing.
Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance
The symptoms of lactose intolerance are as follows:
- Painful Gas
These symptoms will develop about thirty minutes to two hours after consuming milk or dairy products. The severity of the symptoms varies, depending on the amount of lactose that your body can tolerate. Some individuals could be sensitive to very small amounts of foods containing lactose, while others are able to consume much larger amounts before their symptoms begin to flare up.
Foods to Avoid with Lactose Intolerance
Foods that commonly contain high amounts of lactose include dairy products such as ice cream, cheese, and milk. Additionally, some breads, baked goods, salad dressings, snacks, cereals, and even candies have lactose added to them. Foods containing curds, whey, dry milk solids, nonfat dry milk, and milk by-products also contain lactose.
Something you may not have realized is that lactose is present in around twenty percent of prescription medications, such as oral contraceptives (better known as birth control pills, or The Pill), and around six percent of over-the-counter, or OTC, medications- such as tablets made to help control stomach acids.
Who Can Develop Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is a very common condition- many people have it. It has been estimated that around thirty to fifty million Americans are afflicted with some degree of lactose intolerance. There are certain ethnic and racial populations that tend to be more affected by it than others. This includes about seventy-five percent of Jews, Native Americans, African Americans, and Mexicans, as well as around ninety percent of Asians.
What are the Causes of Lactose Intolerance?
Typically, lactose intolerance will naturally develop as you grow older. After the age of two, your small intestine naturally begins to produce less lactase- which is what helps you to digest the lactose. Additionally, certain digestive disorders such as Celiac disease (which is a digestive disorder that does damage to the small intestine and therefore interferes with the absorption process of nutrients in foods) and Crohn’s disease, as well as injuries to the small intestine contribute to the reduction in the amount of lactase available to properly process the lactose.
Diagnosing Lactose Intolerance
Typically, lactose intolerance can be diagnosed based on the symptoms present and the relief of those symptoms when products containing lactose are avoided. However, there are certain tests your physician may use to help confirm this diagnosis. Many times, your physician will ask that you avoid milk and dairy products for one to two weeks to see if symptoms subside, if they suspect that you are lactose intolerant. This is one of the easiest ways to test for lactose intolerance. However, one of the following tests may be used in order to confirm the diagnosis.
This test is a very simple way of diagnosing an intolerance for lactose. Your physician will have you fast overnight. The next morning, you will be asked to drink only a glass of milk. For three to five hours, nothing else will be consumed. If you are lactose intolerant, then your symptoms will be present within several hours of you drinking the milk.
Hydrogen Breath Test
This test is used to measure the amount of hydrogen in your breath after drinking a beverage loaded with lactose. If the hydrogen levels are raised for three to five hours after you consume lactose, then that points to an improper digestion of the lactose.
Blood Glucose Test
During this test, your blood sugar will be measured over a two hour period after consuming a beverage loaded with lactose. Your physician will ask you to fast before the test. In measuring the level of sugar in your blood, the test will show how well (or not well) your body is able to digest the lactose.
Stool Acidity Test
This test for lactose intolerance is used for infants and young children. The physician will have the child consume a small amount of lactose. The lactic acid contained in the lactose causes the stool to turn acidic. Therefore, children and infants who are lactose intolerance will have acidic stool after consuming very small amounts of lactose.
This is the most direct test available or testing for lactose intolerance. A biopsy is taken of the lining of the intestine in order to measure the lactase levels in the lining. However, this procedure is much more invasive and requires that a special analysis be done, which is not typically available at most doctor’s offices. Therefore, this procedure isn’t typically done unless it’s for research purposes.
Due to the fact that they can induce diarrhea in young children and infants, the blood glucose and hydrogen breath tests are not used on them. If your child or infant are showing symptoms of lactose intolerance, your physician will most likely recommend that you switch from using a cow’s milk formula to using a soy milk formula until the symptoms go away. At a later time, you can begin to very slowly reintroduce dairy products into your child’s diet. If it is necessary to confirm the diagnosis in children or infants, a stool acidity test is the best one to use.