Lactose is a natural sugar that can be found in a variety of foods including milk. Normally, lactose is broken down in the small intestine by an enzyme called lactase which aids in its digestion. However, some people do not produce any or enough of this enzyme, causing the lactose to pass through the small intestine undigested, which leads to certain intestinal problems.
Several causes may be behind lactose intolerance. Some babies are born with congenital lactose intolerance meaning that they simply do not produce lactase. This type of lactose intolerance is quite rare. Some ethnic populations are more affected like African Americans and Asians. Intolerance to lactose is more frequently the result of a decreased production of the lactase enzyme which helps digest lactose. A virus affecting the intestine, such as gastroenteritis, for example, can also lead to temporary lactose intolerance.
- abdominal cramps;
- abdominal pain;
Persons who suffer from lactose intolerance typically only have one or two of the above-mentioned symptoms. Symptoms may appear within 30 minutes to a few hours after having ingested a product containing lactose and can even appear the next day. The intensity and duration of symptoms depend on the degree of intolerance.
Intolerance or allergy?
It is important to make the distinction between lactose intolerance and milk allergy. There is no such thing as an allergy to lactose! Again, lactose intolerance is an inability to properly digest lactose. You can however, be allergic to milk. The main difference between the two is that a milk allergy involves the body's immune system which reacts as though the milk proteins are harmful.
An official lactose intolerance diagnosis must be made by a physician although you can conduct a few tests yourself. For example, removing all milk products from your diet for two weeks will allow you to see whether your symptoms have lessened or remain the same. Keeping a journal in which you record all milk products ingested along with your symptoms can also help you establish a connection.
Although there is no cure for lactose intolerance it can be controlled.Adapting your eating habits is the best way to avoid any related symptoms. There are now several lactose-free products on the market as well as alternatives such as soy products.Another option is taking synthetic lactase before eating a meal. Available in tablets, powder or drops, synthetic enzymes help with the digestion of lactose. In all cases make sure that you get enough calcium from food (dairys, dark green vegetables, fish, etc... ) or supplements.