Lactose Intolerance: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Do you feel abdominal cramps or bloating after drinking milk? Does splurging on delectable gourmet cheese make you rush to the toilet after you eat them? Then you could be suffering from lactose intolerance. 

It is estimated that more than 80% of the Asian population suffer from lactose intolerance. When compared to the western countries, this is a huge percentage. The main reason could be that, unlike Europe and other western countries, dairy farming is not feasible in Asia. Because of this, people are not used to consuming dairy products beyond a certain age. 

What is the cause of lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is the inability of the body to break down lactose found in dairy products. Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk and yogurt. 

When you consume dairy products, lactase present in the small intestine breaks down the milk sugar (lactose) so that it is easily absorbed by the body. Those who have lactose intolerance usually do not produce enough lactase. As a result, the breaking down of milk sugar does not take place. Instead, the unabsorbed milk sugar is passed on to the colon, where it gets mixed with bacteria and gets fermented. This results in bloating and gas. 

What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

The main symptoms of lactose intolerance include

  • Abdominal cramp or discomfort
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Flatulence (also known as wind)

If you get any of the above symptoms 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming dairy products, you are likely suffering from lactose intolerance. You should then consult a doctor to have it diagnosed. 

How is lactose intolerance diagnosed?

Lactose tolerance test

In this test, you will be asked to drink a lactose solution. A blood sample will then be taken and tested to find out the blood sugar level. If you are lactose intolerant, the blood sugar level will either not rise or rise very slowly. 

Hydrogen breath test

In this test, the level of hydrogen in your breath is tested to understand whether you are lactose intolerant or not. 

Initially, you will be given a lactose solution to drink. If the body does not properly digest the lactose, the intestinal bacterial will break it down and ferment it. The fermentation results in the release of hydrogen and other gases. If your breath test shows a high level of hydrogen, it means that you are lactose intolerant. 

Stool test

A stool test is mostly carried out in infants as the lactose tolerance and hydrogen breath test cannot be done. If the baby is lactose intolerant, the stool will contain high levels of acetate and other fatty acids. 

Once you are diagnosed with lactose intolerance, you could go on a lactose-free diet for 2 weeks. After 2 weeks, slowly introduce lactose back into your diet and take note of how you feel. This way, you will be able to identify which food items trigger your lactose intolerance. 

How is lactose intolerance treated?

The best way to treat lactose intolerance is to limit the intake of dairy products. You could still include a very small quantity of dairy products in your diet. Besides this, making certain lifestyle changes also ensures that you remain healthy. 

Maintain a good diet

Dairy products are not the only source of calcium for the body. You should also include foods like calcium-fortified cereals, milk substitutes like soy milk and almond milk, nuts like almond and Brazil nut, and canned salmon or sardines in your diet. 

Besides calcium, you should also get enough Vitamin D through sun exposure and foods like eggs, yogurt, and animal liver. You can also take calcium supplements after consulting a doctor. 

Limit dairy consumption

People with lactose intolerance can include low-fat milk products like skimmed milk in their daily diet. It is also a good idea to consume a small quantity of milk along with other foods to reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance. 

You can also experiment with different dairy products as not all contain the same concentration of lactose. Try to avoid high-lactose food like ice cream, ricotta and cottage cheese, condensed milk and cheese spreads. You can have special dairy products that are either low in lactose or lactose-free.

Alternative medicine

Alternative medicines like probiotic drinks are also very effective for lactose-intolerant people. Probiotics are healthy bacteria that are present in your intestine and help in maintaining a healthy digestive system. Probiotic yogurts and supplements are very effective for people with lactose intolerance as these supplements help the body to digest lactose and ease the discomfort. 

Final Thought

You can become lactose intolerant at any age. The best way to treat the condition is to cut back on food that causes discomfort. Before purchasing a new food item, read the product label clearly to see if it contains lactose. Dairy products are not the only food products that contain lactose; certain snack items, tablets and birth control pills also contain lactose. Try to stay away from such food items as much as possible. At the same time, you should ensure that you get enough calcium through other sources so that you remain fit and healthy. 

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