Milk is a fundament part of the diet of every infant mammal, but many can’t tolerate this food, especially in adulthood. Lactose is important to support the development of probiotic bacteria to protect against GI tract infections in infants. A reduction in the production of lactase during adulthood affects most of the world population.
Lactose intolerance is defined as a condition in which a person cannot digest lactose, the main sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Lactose digestion needs a special enzyme called lactase.
Lactose intolerance is caused by lactose malabsorption due to the low levels of intestinal lactase, an enzyme produced by the small intestine. Lactase helps break down the lactose from food into two simple sugars, glucose, and galactose. Without enough of this enzyme, lactose isn’t broken down properly. The undigested lactose passes into the colon where bacteria break it down creating gas, and symptoms of lactose intolerance. People can also become lactose intolerant due to damage to the small intestine caused by an illness or surgery.
People with lactose intolerance experience nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, and a growling sound after consuming dairy products. Symptoms usually start 30 minutes to two hours after eating or drinking something containing lactose.
Lactose intolerance is more common in some populations than others. It’s estimated that 70% of people worldwide have some degree of lactose intolerance, though the prevalence is much higher in some groups such as African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics. In addition, infants who are born prematurely can sometimes have a temporary lactose intolerance until their digestive system matures.
Lactose intolerance is typically diagnosed through a physical exam and a review of symptoms. Several diagnostic tests are available to diagnose lactose intolerance, but the breath test is the most common. In some cases, further tests may be needed to rule out other conditions causing similar symptoms.
Lactose intolerance can be mistaken for other conditions that produce similar symptoms, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), or celiac disease. It’s important to get a proper diagnosis from your doctor in order to determine the best course of treatment.
The primary treatment for lactose intolerance is eliminating or reducing consumption of dairy products. There are also lactose-free and low-lactose options available, such as lactose-free milk or yogurt. Taking a supplement that contains the enzyme lactase can also help break down dairy products so that they’re easier to digest. New research suggests that certain strains of probiotics can benefit individuals with lactose intolerance.
When you or a loved one suffers indigestion when consuming dairy products, contact Gastroenterology Associates of Brooklyn to receive the correct diagnosis and all your treatment options.