Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder caused by the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and nausea. The prevalence of lactose intolerance varies widely among different populations, with rates as high as 90% in some ethnic groups, and as low as 5% in others. It is more common in adults than in children, and it is estimated that around 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant.
Understanding lactose intolerance
Cause of lactose intolerance
The cause of lactose intolerance is the lack of the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down lactose in the small intestine. This can be due to a genetic deficiency, as well as certain medical conditions or treatments that can damage the small intestine and decrease lactase production.
How the body processes lactose?
The body processes lactose by breaking it down into glucose and galactose, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine. The process is facilitated by the enzyme lactase, which is produced by cells in the lining of the small intestine. In individuals with lactose intolerance, the lack of lactase leads to the undigested lactose reaching the colon, where it is fermented by bacteria, causing the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Risk factors for lactose intolerance
Risk factors for lactose intolerance include age, ethnicity, and certain medical conditions. As people age, their body produces less lactase, making them more likely to develop lactose intolerance. Certain ethnic groups such as African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American have a higher incidence of lactose intolerance. Medical conditions such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease can also damage the small intestine, leading to lactose intolerance.
Diagnosis of lactose intolerance
The diagnosis of lactose intolerance can be done through several methods. The most common method is by symptoms-based diagnosis, where a healthcare provider will ask about the patient’s symptoms, medical history and perform a physical examination. Other diagnostic tests include the lactose tolerance test, hydrogen breath test and stool acidity test. The lactose tolerance test measures the body’s blood glucose level after consuming lactose, hydrogen breath test measures the hydrogen in the breath after consuming lactose, and stool acidity test measures the acidity of the stool in response to lactose consumption. These tests can help confirm lactose intolerance and rule out other conditions. However, it is important to note that these tests should be done under the guidance of a healthcare provider.
Treatment options for lactose intolerance include:
- Lactose-free diet: This involves eliminating or reducing the consumption of foods that contain lactose, such as milk, cheese, and ice cream.
- Lactase supplements: These supplements contain the lactase enzyme, which can help break down lactose in the small intestine. They can be taken with meals that contain lactose to reduce symptoms.
- Probiotics: Some probiotics contain lactase-producing bacteria that can help break down lactose in the small intestine.
- Enzyme replacement therapy: This therapy involves taking a lactase enzyme supplement before consuming lactose-containing foods. It can be a more efficient way to manage symptoms than taking lactase supplements with meals.
Managing lactose intolerance through diet
Managing lactose intolerance through diet involves identifying and avoiding foods that are high in lactose and finding lactose-free alternatives.
Here are some tips for managing lactose intolerance through diet:
- Identify which foods contain lactose: Common foods that contain lactose include milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt. However, lactose can also be found in many processed foods, such as bread, cereal, and baked goods.
- Find lactose-free alternatives: Many grocery stores carry lactose-free milk, cheese, and other dairy products. You can also find lactose-free alternatives of processed foods in health food stores or online.
- Read food labels: Always check the ingredient list for lactose or milk derivatives when buying processed foods.
- Try small amounts of lactose: Some people with lactose intolerance can tolerate small amounts of lactose without experiencing symptoms.
- Experiment with different types of dairy: Some people with lactose intolerance can tolerate hard cheeses and yogurt with live cultures better than other dairy products.
- Add probiotics to your diet: Some probiotics contain lactase-producing bacteria, which can help break down lactose in the small intestine.
Lifestyle changes can also help manage lactose intolerance. Here are some tips for lifestyle changes that may help:
- Stress management: Stress can affect the body’s digestion and may worsen symptoms of lactose intolerance. Finding ways to manage stress, such as through exercise, meditation, or therapy, may help reduce symptoms.
- Exercise: Regular exercise can improve overall gut health and may help reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance.
- Eating schedule: Eating smaller, more frequent meals may help reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance by putting less stress on the digestive system.
- Drinking water: Drinking water with meals can help to dilute the lactose and make it easier to digest.
- Get enough sleep: Lack of sleep can also affect the gut health, and it can worsen symptoms of lactose intolerance.