Lactose intolerance means an individual is unable to absorb lactose into his/her digestive system. Lactose is a major sugar in milk, commonly found in a variety of dairy products. Should lactose be improperly absorbed then it ferments, causing stomach pain, diarrhoea and bloating.
What is the cause of lactose intolerance?
Lactose is a disaccharide, comprised of two intertwined sugars. For the body to absorb lactose, the disaccharide has to be split into the two lesser sugars.
The split is done by lactase, an enzyme, present in the small intestinal lining. Should the levels of lactase enzyme be absent or low, the splitting does not happen. Instead, bacteria within the large intestine ferment the lactose, producing extra gas, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
There is a lot of lactase activity in babies, decreasing as the amount of milk within their diet declines. There are those who have extremely low lactase levels, however, they have no symptoms. Why this is the case is unknown.
Those at risk of becoming lactose intolerant
The majority of European and North American adults have the ability to absorb lactose. Nonetheless, a great proportion of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.
- Those who have undergone major stomach or bowel surgery or have coeliac disease (gluten intolerance) are, in many cases, lactose intolerant until the time their condition is treated.
- There are many who become lactose intolerant after getting diarrhoea due to the small intestine’s lining getting slightly damaged, lowering lactase production.
How can lactose intolerance be diagnosed?
The way to be sure is to:
- Get a lactose tolerance test from your GP. Your GP measures your blood sugar levels before you have a drink with lactose in it and then afterwards. Should the blood sugar level increase with this test, you are not lactose intolerant.
- The breath test involves you drinking a lactose solution. Then your GP analyses your breath for hydrogen gas, present only when lactose ferments.
- A sample of the small intestinal lining is tested by means of an endoscopy, involving the insertion of a small tube into the stomach and it is then analyzed.
Treatment of lactose intolerance
Most people who have mild symptoms feel a lot better after simply cutting down on the quantity of dairy products included in their diet.
Those who have severe symptoms need to adopt a lactose free diet. It is best herein to consult a dietician, which can be done through your GP.
Some lactose intolerance sufferers can take cream in coffee. On the other hand, there are others who get diarrhoea after a bit of lactose. Some can tolerate yoghurt. Whereas, others cannot tolerate any lactose product whatsoever.
Lactose intolerance is not harmful. Should you be unable to keep to a lactose free diet, you will not damage yourself, nor endanger yourself in any way.
Foods with lactose
- Margarine, butter, milk, milk products, milk powder, cheese and yoghurt
- Bread, other baked produce (check label)
- Processed foods (check label)
- Many types of medicinal tablets