Most people are born with the ability to break down lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in milk and other dairy products.
Normally this sugar is broken down by an enzyme called lactase. But, people who are lactose intolerant don’t produce enough lactase to digest lactose properly.
In infants, lactase is essential to digest breast milk. Yet as children get older, they start to produce less lactase. By adulthood 70% of people have the enzyme deficiency.
Despite being a common digestive problem, 50% of people aren’t aware they have a deficiency.
To sort truth from fiction, here are the facts about lactose intolerance.
Lactose Intolerance is Genetic
Some people are lactose intolerant because their DNA doesn’t create lactase.
This genetic mutation traces back to Hungary, over 7,000 years ago.
Today, the way to know if you’re lactose intolerant is through genetic screening. Finding out whether you’re affected can also prevent future health conditions, such as osteoporosis and vitamin deficiencies.
Factors that can make you more prone to lactose intolerance include:
- Ethnicity: Lactose intolerance is more common in people of Asian, Hispanic/Latin, African and American Indian descent. It’s least common among Europeans
- Older Age: Although babies can be lactase deficient, lactose intolerance appears mostly in adults (after the age of 21)
- Premature birth: Babies born prematurely are more at risk because the small intestine doesn’t develop lactase-producing cells until late in the third trimester
- Small intestine diseases: Bacterial overgrowth, ulcerative colitis, coeliac disease and Crohn’s disease can also cause lactose intolerance
Not Everyone has Symptoms
Stomach cramps, bloating, nausea and diarrhoea within two hours of consuming dairy could be a sign you’re lactose intolerant.
But, not everyone shows symptoms.
If there’s a history of lactase deficiency in your family, consider genetic screening to determine your risk.
Most People are Heading for Lactose Intolerance
More than 70% of the world’s population are affected by lactose intolerance.
In Australia, the enzyme deficiency is also on the rise.
Not all Dairy is off Limits
People with lactose intolerance can still produce a small amount of lactase. How much lactose someone can tolerate varies. You might be ok with tea and a dash of milk, but a milkshake can set of symptoms.
Some dairy products also contain less lactose, which can be tolerable for some.
Natural and hard cheeses, butter, probiotic or Greek-style yogurts and some dairy protein powders provide better choices for people with lactose intolerance.
Milk Tolerances are Different to Milk Allergies
Milk and dairy tolerances such as lactase deficiency are often confused with milk allergies.
Intolerance is the body’s inability to digest lactose sugars in milk. Whereas, an allergy occurs when your immune system overacts to the milk protein. People with milk allergies must avoid milk products entirely.
The differences in symptoms include:
- Bloating, including an uncomfortable feeling of fullness
- Abdominal pain and cramps
- diarrhoea Nausea, sometimes vomiting
- Difficulty breathing, wheezing or anaphylactic shock
- Swelling of the lips, face or eyes
- Tongue or throat swelling/tightness
- Loss of consciousness
Dietary Changes can Relieve Symptoms
Because milk products are added to boxed, canned, frozen, packaged and prepared foods, it’s important to maintain a healthy diet if you’re lactose intolerant.
To help relieve symptoms you should:
- Start with small doses of dairy and see if you can increase your intake over time
- Avoid or limit dairy; consume soy milk, other milk substitutes and dairy-free foods that are calcium-rich
Tip: Follow a lactose and dairy-free diet for two weeks. To assess tolerance levels, reintroduce foods with lactose slowly.
Calcium is Important
People with lactose intolerance need to ensure healthy levels of calcium, vitamin A and D.
These nutrients can be consumed in other sources, such as leafy greens, egg yolks, fortified juices, nuts/seeds, sweet potatoes, mango, kale, quinoa, bean, oranges and fatty fish or fish liver oils.
Before taking calcium or vitamin D supplement, talk to your doctor about other options for lactose intolerance.
This article was written by Jayde Walker (Ferguson), a local content writer in the health, business, travel and music industries. You can catch her on LinkedIn.