What is Lactose Intolerance?

What is Lactose Intolerance? Lactose intolerance is the body’s inability to digest lactose, which is a sugar molecule most commonly found in milk or dairy products. If you suspect to be suffering from this condition, there are various tests that can be performed to detect it with utmost accuracy. These include the standard lactose-tolerance exam, hydrogen-breath and stool-acidity test for kids. Note that intolerance is different from food allergy towards milk, the two conditions aren’t one and the same thing.

When lactose passes through a patient’s large intestines without being properly assimilated, it might cause certain symptoms like bloating, gasand even belly pain. While some sufferers cannot digest any dairy foods whatsoever, others will take small quantities of milk products without showing adverse side effects. Studies have revealed that this disease is more common in mature people and occurs quite frequently in certain races than others. Namely Africans, Asians, South Americans and Native Americans compared to those of European descent who are less likely to contract it. Likewise, men are affected more than women.

Lactose-intolerant people do not create enough enzymes to digest lactose compound, it ends up sitting in their stomach causing flatulence, abdominal cramps and bloating. Patients can also develop diarrhea when small intestines are unable to absorb the ingredient. Individuals may present varying symptoms depending on the quantity of milk product they’ve ingested, and amount of lactase enzyme being produced by their body.

Possible Causes of Lactose Intolerance

In normal situations, lactase enzyme turns milk sugar into 2 simple compounds which include galactose and glucose, these are absorbed into the blood-stream via the intestinal lining. However, if you are lactase deficient, lactose in the food will move into the colon rather than being processed and digested. Once they reach there, stomach bacteria will react with the undigested lactose to cause certain adverse symptoms. LI can be caused in 3 ways which include:

1. Primary lactose intolerance

It’s the most common form of lactose intolerance, those who develop this disease are not born this way but rather start life creating enough lactase in their bodies. A necessity for children who get all of their nutrition directly from milk. However, as kids grow and steadily replace milk with other kinds of foods, their production of lactase enzyme also decreases gradually. Though still remains high enough to assimilate the amount of dairy found in a typical adult’s diet.

For those suffering from primary lactose intolerance, it means lactase production drops sharply hence making milk products relatively difficult to digest by an average adult. This condition is genetically pre-determined, despite not showing in the early stages of life.

2. Secondary lactose intolerance

This type of lactose intolerance happens when your ileum decreases production of lactase enzyme due to injury, illness or a surgical procedure involving the small intestine. In cases of surgery, the condition can either become temporary or permanent. Other diseases that are associated with it include celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and bacterial overgrowth. Nevertheless, there are various treatments that can be used to restore lactase levels and alleviate symptoms, though it may take some time.

3. Congenital lactose intolerance

Also known as developmental lactose intolerance, it sometimes occurs in babies though on very rare occasions. The disorder is characterized by complete absence of lactase activity, it’s passed from one generation to another in a certain pattern of inheritance known as autosomal recessive, meaning both the father and mother must pass on a similar genetic variant for the offspring to be affected.

Moreover, sometimes premature babies may have temporary lactose intolerance because of not being able to produce lactase. But as the child grows and begins to create this enzyme, the problem gradually dissipates or goes away.

Diseases Commonly Associated With Lactose Intolerance

There are a number of diseases usually associated with those that have lactose intolerance.

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative Colitis is a chronic disease of the colon, where the lining becomes inflamed and covered with small open ulcers or sores that can become infected, releasing pus and mucous.

Crohn’s Disease

Crohn’s Disease is a chronic bowel syndrome that causes painful inflammation of the digestive system, especially colon and ileum. This disease is also associated with fistulae and ulcers which can badly affect your quality of life.

Celiac Disease

Celiac Disease is a digestive disorder caused by abnormal immune reaction to gluten, which is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat, barley and rye products. Those with celiac disease produce antibodies that feed on their villi causing intestinal perforations.


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder that affects the large intestine (colon).

Bacterial Gastroenteritis

They are caused by bacterial infections also known as ‘food poisoning’, microorganisms mainly enter the body through uncooked or poorly prepared food as well as poor hygiene standards. This cases inflammation of the stomach lining and intestines.

Lactose Intolerance Risk factors

Other factors that can make you or your kid susceptible to lactose intolerance include:

  • Ageing. LI usually appears in the adult population, it’s quite uncommon in babies and youngsters.
  • Premature birth. Typically, premature babies have reduced amounts of lactase in the blood since small intestines do not develop lactase-producing cells until late in the 3rd trimester.
  • Certain cancer treatments. Those who have received cancer radiation therapy in the abdomen, or have intestinal complications brought about by chemotherapy are at a higher risk of developing lactose intolerance.

Lactose Intolerance Symptoms:

The symptoms of this disease range from mild to severe, depending on the amount of lactase that a person’s body produces. These signs usually begin 30min to 2hrs after eating or drinking products that contain lactose. Some of the factors to watch out for include:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea, and
  • Stomach rumbling
lactose intolerance pain
Lactose intolerance pain

Always remember to make an appointment with your medic if you show two or more of the above symptoms, the earlier treatment is found the better. The best way to check if your physical discomforts are caused by lactose-intolerance is by avoiding milk and dairy products for a while, if they go away then try adding small portions of milk products again to your diet to see if they shall come back.

In case feelings of nausea or sickness reappear each time you take ice cream, milk or dairy products, then chances are high that you have the disease. Sometimes, people who’ve never experienced any problems with these types of foods can develop intolerance as they become older. If you suspect to be suffering from this condition, consult with your doctor for more advice. He/she will determine whether the symptoms present are caused by lactose intolerance, or any other underlying syndrome.

Preparing for an appointment

Contact your family doctor immediately you discover the telltale signs of LI. Since appointments can sometimes be brief, it’s always good to prepare early before the final meeting. Some of the important things to know are:

  • Write down likely questions for your doctor
  • Prepare a list of all medications, supplements or vitamins that you’re taking.
  • Beware of pre-appointment restrictions. Before showing up for the appointment, ask if there’s anything you are required to do in advance, like restricting your diet.
  • Jot down all the symptoms you are experiencing, including those that seem untied to the reason you wanted to book an appointment in the first place.

In the meantime, keep track of your daily servings of dairy products such as ice cream, cottage cheese, milk or yogurt. Particularly paying attention to the time of day you are having them, and also what you are taking them with. Additionally, let the doctor know which types of dairy foods are likely to trigger symptoms. Including the amounts that are consumed on a daily basis.

Lactose Intolerance Diagnosis

A trained doctor can tell whether you have LI or not by simply asking a few questions about your symptoms. Based on these findings, they may proceed forth with diagnosis to know more about the condition affecting you. If the physician suspects that you have LI, he or she may request to know more about your medical history before proposing an appropriate physical exam. Moreover, before making a diagnosis, the medic may require that you stay away from dairy products for a short while to see how the body reacts. Patients may also be required to bring a sample of their stool. Usually, the stool of someone who has this disorder is loose and watery, plus it can also be foamy.

Hydrogen breath test

It’s the most precise lactose intolerance test currently in existence. Before taking this test, you must avoid certain types of foods, medicines and cigarettes. On the final day of testing, you’ll take a liquid that has lactose in it, then exhale into a special machine several times over many hours.

If hydrogen amounts in your breath are significant, then you surely have LI. Nevertheless, this test isn’t usually done on babies and young children since it can lead to severe diarrhea.

Lactose tolerance test

This exam measures your blood sugar levels after eating or drinking lactose. Patients should not take any food or water on the night before taking their test, particularly after midnight. On the final day, you’ll be given a special fluid to drink that contains lactose, this has the potential to cause flatulence or pain in your stomach.

Thereafter, your blood will be tested after every 30min for 2 hours consecutively. If the blood sugar quotient does not rise, then chances are that you have lactose intolerance. However, this test isn’t carried out on individuals who have diabetes, including babies and the very young children.

Lactose Intolerance Treatment

Currently, there’s no permanent cure for this condition. But you can easily manage it by limiting or avoiding dairy products completely. Some people prefer using milk with reduced lactose, or substituting milk and its derivatives with soy milk or soy cheese. Similarly, there are patients who can consume live-culture yogurt without encountering any adverse symptoms whatsoever.

You can also consume special lactase dietary pills that help digest lactose. Plus patients should always ensure that they get sufficient amounts of nutrients in the body, especially calcium. The compound is particularly important for kids, expectant women, teens and older women who have reached menopause. Some nondairy foods you can try which contain calcium include:

  • Canned sardines, salmon and tuna
  • Calcium-enriched juices and cereals
  • Almonds
  • Broccoli, kale, collards, okra and turnip greens
  • Calcium-fortified soy products like tofu, soy milk and soybeans

After getting a lactose intolerance diagnosis, you may feel contented to discover what has been ailing you, but also frustrated for having to deal with the condition for the rest of your life.

There are various ways to live with LI, though what works for one individual may not necessarily work for another. Since there’s no absolute cure for lactose intolerance, managing your symptoms is more of a personal responsibility.

Otherwise, one of the easiest tips you can apply is limiting the amount of milk in your diet, including byproducts such as yoghurt and cheese. Generally, most people get around 10g of lactose each day from low-fat, whole or fat-free milk. But all milk despite the fat content contains similar amounts of lactose.

Nonetheless, certain foods with low levels of lactose such as cheddar or Swiss cheese may not cause any problems. If you aren’t sure whether a particular milk product causes symptoms, consume some small amount then wait to see whether feeling of sickness will emerge. Additionally, for some people taking milk products together with other food products, such as cereal, can reduce or eliminate the prevalent symptoms.

Eating yogurt together with live or active cultures can also work out well for others, this type of yogurt helps individuals digest lactose in their bodies much easier. While all yogurts available for consumption are prepared using live cultures, some go through a process known as ‘heat treatment’ which eliminates the bacteria. This is the type of yoghurt that you should avoid. Furthermore, check the product label for words such as ‘contains active and live cultures.’ It’s a clear indication that the product is fit for consumption.

Nevertheless, if you have intense lactose intolerance, then it’s best to avoid lactose completely. There are certain medicines and manufactured foods that contain lactose and should therefore be avoided. They include instant breakfast drinks, lactose infused breads, instant potatoes, soups and biscuit mixes amongst others. Before buying these products, be sure to read the labels for lactose or its ‘hidden’ names such as:

  • Whey
  • Curds
  • Dry milk solids
  • Nonfat dry milk product
  • Milk by-products


Probiotics can also be used as an effective form of treatment, these are living organisms found in the intestines that help sustain a healthy digestive tract. They are also available as ‘live’ or active cultures in yogurts and supplement capsules. These compounds can also be used for treating the gastrointestinal symptoms of LI, such as irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea. Plus they can assist your body to digest lactose much faster. Generally, probiotics are considered a safe option that’s worth trying if other types of treatment do not work.

Almond Milk

Another equally effective remedy is substituting milk-based products with viable alternatives such as almond milk. Almond milk has many health benefits.

health benefits of almond milk
Almond milk


If you suspect that you have lactose intolerance, the first thing to do is always consulting with a doctor. The medic will identify specific causes of your problem and recommend all the possible solutions. Some of the similar symptoms that can be ruled out include irritable bowel syndrome, overuse of laxatives and inflammatory bowel disease. Including problems with digesting foods that have fructose or sorbitol.

Moreover, apart from calcium also ensure that you get enough supply of vitamin D to curb lactose intolerance. This can be found in eggs, liver and even cultured yogurt. Consult with your doctor about the possible sources of vitamin D that are appropriate for you.


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