Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder caused by the inability to digest lactose, a carbohydrate found in dairy products. It is thought to affect 75% of the world population. (West, 2017) The condition requires management by watching how you consume dairy products. (Ratini, 2019)
Lactose is the sugar that is found in milk. An enzyme called lactase breaks down this sugar, which is absorbed by our body. Those with lactose intolerance do not have enough lactase in their small intestine and suffer from certain issues when consuming dairy. (Ratini, 2019)
Causes of Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance is of two types with different causes. They are:
- Primary Lactose Intolerance: A decrease in the production of lactase with age causes primary lactose intolerance. This is more common among people and can have a genetic origin. (West, 2017)
- Secondary Lactose Intolerance: This is caused by some illness, either a stomach bug or serious issues like celiac disease. Inflammation in the gut wall can lead to a temporary decline in the production of lactose. (West, 2017)
Dairy Products that Cause Lactose Intolerance
Many dairy products contain lactose and can trigger your intolerance. Some of these products are:
- Cow’s Milk
- Goat’s Milk
- Butter and Cheese (soft and hard)
- Ice Cream
Certain other food products that might contain lactose are cookies, chocolate, candies, bread, cakes and other baked goods, breakfast cereals, instant soups, sauces, processed meat and ready meals, potato chips, nuts, tortillas, custards and desserts, etc. (West, 2017)
Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance
In the case of lactose intolerant people, the lactose is not broken down. Instead, it goes to the colon and mixes with the bacteria and causes fermentation. This fermentation forms short-chain fatty acids and gas, which causes bloating, flatulence and pain. The most common symptoms that you can suffer are bloating, gas, diarrhea and abdominal cramps.
Diarrhea is caused by undigested lactose in the intestine, which leads to water moving into your digestive tract. Some people also experience constipation, vomiting, nausea or urgency to go the toilet. The severity of the symptoms depends on the level of intolerance and the amount of dairy consumed. (West, 2017)
Testing Methods for Lactose Intolerance
To know whether you are lactose intolerant, there are two common tests –
- Breath Test: The breath test checks the level of hydrogen in your breath. High levels of hydrogen when you exhale can mean that you are lactose intolerant. When lactose is broken down in the colon, hydrogen is given off, which gets taken to the lungs by the bloodstream.
- Blood Test: A blood test is taken after consuming a lot of lactose to show your body reacts to the carbohydrate. In the case of children and babies, doctors can also take a stool sample. (Ratini, 2019)
Certain factors that might cause you to become lactose intolerance are:
- Age: Increasing age matters as lactose intolerance generally occurs in adulthood and rarely in babies and children.
- Ethnicity: It is most common among people who are of Hispanic, Asian, African and American Indian descent.
- Premature birth: Children born prematurely have lesser lactase levels due to underdeveloped small intestines.
- Certain cancer treatments: Intestinal complications from chemotherapy or radiation therapy for stomach cancer increase your risk of lactose intolerance.
- Diseases affecting the intestine: Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine and other small intestine problems can cause lactose intolerance. (Mayo Clinic, 2020)
Lactose intolerance is not a life-threatening condition, but it can get uncomfortable and have a negative impact on your quality of life. You can test yourself for this condition easily. If you are suffering from symptoms of lactose intolerance, go without dairy products for a while. If the symptoms disappear, bring back dairy products to your diet in moderation and take a note of how your body reacts. However, if your symptoms do continue even after cutting out dairy, contact your doctor to know what’s going on. (Ratini, 2019)
When to Visit the ER
If your symptoms come on suddenly and are accompanied by fever and vomiting, something more serious is going on. If a young child or elderly person presents symptoms such as these, it’s important to seek medical intervention.
Ratini, Melinda. “Lactose Intolerance – Cause, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/digestive-diseases-lactose-intolerance.
West, Helen. “Lactose Intolerance 101 – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 24 June 2017, www.healthline.com/nutrition/lactose-intolerance-101.
“Lactose Intolerance.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 7 Apr. 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lactose-intolerance/symptoms-causes/syc-20374232.