Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest a sugar called lactose that’s found mainly in milk and dairy products.
Normally, the small intestine produces an enzyme called lactase, which breaks down lactose into two simple sugars, glucose and galactose, that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. People whose bodies don’t make enough lactase can’t fully digest lactose, causing mild to uncomfortable side effects.
Some people have a higher chance of being lactose intolerant. These groups include Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and people of Jewish descent. It also affects adults more than children, since the body produces less lactase enzyme as people age.
What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?
Common signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
- Abdominal pain
These symptoms can be mild or severe depending on the amount of lactose consumed and the degree of lactase deficiency. Some people who produce small amounts of lactase may be able to tolerate small servings of dairy products and other foods containing lactose. Symptoms appear anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours after eating dairy.
How is lactose intolerance diagnosed?
Lactose intolerance can be difficult to diagnose through symptoms alone, as similar symptoms may be caused by other conditions. The best way to confirm the condition is through formal testing. And if you don’t have lactose intolerance, testing can point to other conditions that may be causing discomfort.
Treatment Options and Prevention
Lactose intolerance is relatively easy to treat. The amount of lactase enzyme that the body produces cannot be increased, but symptoms can be controlled through diet. Many children and adults do not need to avoid lactose completely, but individuals differ in the amounts of lactose they can handle.
To reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance:
- Choose soy milk, rice milk or even try almond milk
- Choose soy yogurt, coconut yogurt or rice yogurt
- Choose low-lactose dairy products such as aged cheese, cream cheese or sherbet
- Choose special dairy products such as Lactaid® milk, Lactaid® ice cream, Lactaid® cottage cheese, Lactaid® or milk
- Use lactose containing tablets such as Lactaid® or Dairy Ease® with dairy products.
- Be aware of hidden or added sources of lactose in dry milk solids, non-fat dry milk-powder, whey, curds, and in milk by-products.
- Limit your quantity of dairy products; even people with lactose intolerance can usually tolerate small amounts of dairy products.
When to Seek Medical Advice
If you have signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance, talk to your doctor. Don’t diagnose yourself. Your symptoms could be an indication of another illness. Your doctor can help determine if you have lactose intolerance or another condition.