Managing Lactose Intolerance
At least 50 million Americans are estimated to have lactose intolerance. What is a good definition for this very common problem? Lactose intolerance is the inability to fully digest the milk sugar (lactose) in dairy products, such as milk and ice cream.
Lactose intolerance can affect anybody, but seems to be more prevalent in African American, Asian, Native American and Mediterranean populations.
HOW DOES LACTOSE INTOLERANCE OCCUR?
The small intestine produces the enzyme lactase, which breaks down milk sugar in preparation for absorption into the bloodstream. Lactose intolerance occurs when you don’t produce enough lactase to break down the amount of lactose you consume.
Not all people with low levels of lactase have symptoms. Those who do are considered lactose intolerant.
At birth and in early childhood, your body produces large amounts of lactase. As you get older, the amount decreases significantly.
COMMON SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
Symptoms of lactose intolerance usually begin 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating or drinking foods that contain lactose. These signs and symptoms may include nausea, abdominal cramps, bloating, gas, or diarrhea.
Of course many other conditions, including a simple stomach flu or irritable bowel syndrome, can give you similar symptoms so don’t be too quick to self-diagnose.
VISITING YOUR DOCTOR
Other tests such as the Hydrogen Breath Test or Stool Acidity Test can also be performed.
Even if you are lactose intolerant, you can often digest small amounts of dairy with no problem so treatment is often unnecessary. In addition, you can usually control the symptoms of lactose intolerance through a modified diet. To minimize your symptoms:
- Drink milk or eat dairy products with meals rather than by themselves to aid absorption.
- Avoid consuming large amounts of dairy products at the same time.
- Know your different dairy products. For example, hard cheeses like Swiss or Cheddar contain very little lactose so are usually much easier to digest.
- Use lactase enzyme tablets or drops such as LactAid or Dairy Ease.
- Use lactose reduced or lactose free milk. You can find these at most supermarkets right next to the regular milk.
In conclusion, there is no way to prevent the development of lactose intolerance, but with proper management the condition does not have to be much of a problem at all.
Helen Pensanti M.D.
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