Lactose intolerance is a condition in which the body is unable to fully digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. This can lead to a variety of symptoms, including bloating, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
The prevalence of lactose intolerance varies widely depending on the population studied. In general, it is more common in people of non-European descent, with as much as 90% of people of African, Asian, and Native American descent being lactose intolerant. In contrast, only about 5-15% of people of Northern European descent are lactose intolerant.
It is also more common in adults than in children, with the majority of people becoming lactose intolerant after age two. However, it can develop at any age.
In addition to ethnic and age-related factors, lactose intolerance can also be caused by certain medical conditions, such as celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and cystic fibrosis.
Overall, lactose intolerance is a common condition that affects a significant portion of the global population. It is important for individuals who suspect they may have lactose intolerance to seek proper diagnosis and treatment to manage their symptoms and maintain a healthy diet.
Causes of Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down lactose in the small intestine. When there is not enough lactase to properly digest lactose, it passes undigested into the large intestine, where it is fermented by bacteria, leading to symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and stomach cramps.
There are several different causes of lactose intolerance, including:
- Genetic factors: Lactose intolerance can be inherited, and certain ethnic groups have a higher incidence of the condition due to genetic factors. For example, people of African, Asian, and Native American descent are more likely to be lactose intolerant than people of European descent.
- Developmental factors: In most mammals, lactase production decreases as they stop breastfeeding, this is also the case in humans, lactase production typically decreases as people transition from childhood to adulthood.
- Acquired factors: Certain medical conditions or treatments can cause lactose intolerance to develop later in life. For example, damage to the small intestine from diseases such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease can lead to a decrease in lactase production. Certain medications, such as antibiotics, can also cause lactose intolerance.
- Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, can also cause lactose intolerance.
Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance
The symptoms of lactose intolerance can vary depending on the individual and the amount of lactose they consume. Common symptoms include:
- Gastrointestinal symptoms: These are the most common symptoms of lactose intolerance, and include bloating, diarrhoea, gas, and stomach cramps. These symptoms typically occur within 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming lactose.
- Non-gastrointestinal symptoms: Some people with lactose intolerance may also experience non-gastrointestinal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and skin rashes.
- Abdominal pain: Some individuals may experience abdominal pain or discomfort after consuming lactose.
- Nausea: Some people may feel sick to their stomach or even vomit after consuming lactose.
It is important to note that some people may have a mild form of lactose intolerance, which may not cause any symptoms, or only occasional mild symptoms. In contrast, some people may have a severe form of lactose intolerance, which can cause debilitating symptoms.
It is also worth noting that symptoms of lactose intolerance may be confused with other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). To confirm the diagnosis, lactose intolerance can be tested through several methods such as lactose tolerance test, hydrogen breath test or stool acidity test.
If you suspect you may have lactose intolerance, it is important to see a healthcare provider to confirm the diagnosis and discuss treatment options, which include dietary modifications, lactase supplements and probiotics.
Diagnosis of Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance can be diagnosed through several methods, including:
- Lactose tolerance test: This test measures the body’s ability to digest lactose. The patient is given a drink containing a certain amount of lactose and their blood sugar level is measured at regular intervals. If the blood sugar level does not rise as expected, it may indicate lactose intolerance.
- Hydrogen breath test: This test measures the amount of hydrogen in the breath. When lactose is not properly digested, it is fermented by bacteria in the large intestine, leading to the production of hydrogen. A rise in hydrogen levels in the breath can indicate lactose intolerance.
- Stool acidity test: This test measures the amount of acid in the stool. When lactose is not properly digested, it is fermented by bacteria in the large intestine, leading to the production of acid. An increase in acid in the stool can indicate lactose intolerance.
- Genetic testing: This test can help to identify the genetic causes of lactose intolerance.
It is important to note that a diagnosis of lactose intolerance should be made by a healthcare professional, as symptoms of lactose intolerance can be similar to those of other conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
The diagnosis of lactose intolerance is based on the symptoms, history of the patient, and the results of the lactose tolerance test, hydrogen breath test, stool acidity test, or genetic testing. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the healthcare provider can help the patient to manage the symptoms through dietary modifications, lactase supplements or probiotics, and also rule out any other underlying conditions.
Treatment of Lactose Intolerance
Treatment for lactose intolerance typically involves dietary modifications, lactase supplements, and probiotics.
- Dietary modifications: The most effective way to manage lactose intolerance is to limit or avoid foods that contain lactose, such as milk, cheese, and ice cream. This can be done by following a lactose-free or lactose-reduced diet. Some people may be able to tolerate small amounts of lactose, while others may need to avoid it completely.
- Lactase supplements: These supplements contain the enzyme lactase, which can help to break down lactose in the small intestine. These supplements can be taken before consuming foods that contain lactose, and can help to reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance.
- Probiotics: Some studies have found that certain probiotic strains, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum, can help to improve the body’s ability to digest lactose.
It is important to note that treatment for lactose intolerance should be tailored to the individual and their specific needs. Some people may be able to manage their symptoms with dietary modifications alone, while others may require lactase supplements or probiotics.
It is also important to work with a healthcare professional such as a registered dietitian or a doctor who can help to develop a treatment plan that is right for you. They can also rule out other underlying conditions. It is also important to keep in mind that lactose intolerance can be confused with other conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) so it’s important to seek proper diagnosis.