Lactose intolerance is a common condition affecting over a quarter of American adults. As people grow older, they may find themselves less able to properly digest milk and dairy products. In this article, we explain lactose intolerance, its symptoms, and how to manage the condition with dietary changes.
What is Lactose and Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose is a sugar found in milk and dairy products. Normally, lactose is broken down by lactase, an enzyme in the small intestine, so it can be absorbed. Most infants are born with this enzyme so they can digest breast milk. Over time, some people produce less lactase which means that lactose is no longer broken down properly when consumed. This leads to lactose intolerance. Note that lactose intolerance is not an allergy to milk or other dairy products — it is the lack of the enzyme necessary to break it down in the body.
In some cases, lactose sensitivity or intolerance may be mild to moderate and may be managed with supplements, medication, or dietary changes. However, in more severe cases, a completely lactose-free diet may be the best option.
Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance or Sensitivity
Typical symptoms of lactose intolerance include abdominal cramping, bloating, gas, and/or diarrhea. These symptoms most often occur thirty minutes to two hours after ingesting a food or drink containing lactose.
Many people experiencing these abdominal symptoms may choose to cut out dairy products either partially or completely. A physician or specialist can evaluate to see if the symptoms are being caused by lactose intolerance or by another condition, as these symptoms are also associated with many other gastrointestinal conditions. You may be asked to reduce dairy products in your day as an early recommendation to determine if symptoms are related to lactose intake. Lactose-intolerant patients often find quick relief from symptoms after reducing lactose intake.
Recommendations for a Lactose-Free Diet
If you are suffering from gastrointestinal distress after consuming dairy products, you may want to consider a lactose-free diet for 4-6 weeks to see if symptoms improve.
A lactose-free diet is one in which no lactose is consumed, either from dairy products or other sources. Lactose is most often found in dairy products such as milk and cheese, but it can also be hidden in many processed foods such as breads, baked goods, and cereal. When following a lactose-free diet, it is important to read labels carefully, as many processed foods may have hidden lactose present.
There are many milk and dairy substitutes available on the market, such as nut milk, rice milk, soy milk, and Lactaid products. Many hard cheeses (such as cheddar and Swiss) have a lower lactose count and can sometimes be enjoyed by those with lactose sensitivity. Lactose reduced products are also available.
Lactase enzyme supplements are available on the market and are intended to be consumed with meals containing lactose; however, there is not significant research to support its efficacy in those with lactose intolerance.
Most people with lactose intolerance may be able to handle a small amount of lactose and can experiment with adding dairy products back into their diet over a period of weeks. Those with more severe symptoms may have to avoid lactose indefinitely.
If you have been experiencing the symptoms of lactose intolerance and are looking for relief, make an appointment with Richmond Gastroenterology Associates.
Although finding alternatives to dairy milk is a lot easier these days, it is also possible to make your own milk, yogurt, and ice cream using nuts or seeds. It can be time intensive, but well worth it for the final product. Here are some of my favorite recipes (adapted from My New Roots by Sarah Britton):