Lactose is a specific form of sugar that is primarily found in milk and various dairy products. In simple words, lactose intolerance is your inability to digest lactose contained in milk or dairy products that you consume regularly. Lactose is mostly digested in the small intestine with the help of an enzyme called lactase. For any physical reason, there may be a shortage of lactase in the small intestine leading to incomplete digestion of lactose.(1, 2) In general, lactose intolerance is not risky or harmful for the body but can be upsetting and stressful.
How To Know If You Are Lactose Intolerant?
Lactase enzyme forms in abundance in babies who depend on breastfeeding mostly. All of us are born with enough ability to digest milk and milk products. However, the production of lactase starts decreasing after adolescent. It may be genetic or due to the complexity of the chemical compounds that make the food products have lactose.
Following are the most obvious signs of lactose intolerance:
Bloating and indigestion
When the small intestine cannot digest lactose it passes through the gut and reaches the colon. Lactose is not absorbed by the upper lining of the colon where a layer of lactose is formed and ferments over time. Due to fermentation, different types of gases are formed including methane, hydrogen, and carbon dioxide.(1) Consequently, you may experience bloating and indigestion. You may also experience mild or moderate but persisting stomach pain around the navel and lower abdomen. If every time, 2 to 3 hours after consuming milk or milk products, you are experiencing this, you may have lactose intolerance.(2)
Diarrhea or Loose Motions
Diarrhea is marked by the increased volume of bowel movements that you naturally have. Lactose intolerance leads to the fermentation of lactose in the colon and the formation of a high volume of water. This is responsible for loose motion and frequent bowel movements. You might have seen babies breastfeeding generally have loose stool. This is not normal in the case of adults. If drinking milk or eating dairy products causes indigestion and diarrhea, it’s a sign of lactose intolerance.(3)
Other Common Symptoms
Bloating, indigestion and diarrhea can cause multiple other issues in the body such as acid reflux, muscular cramps, eczema and headache. However, these are not the established symptoms of lactose intolerance. You may experience frequently any one or more of these symptoms 30 mins to 2 hours after drinking milk or eating dairy products.(1)
In this context, it should be kept in mind that milk allergy and lactose intolerance are not the same things and they are not related either. Confusion happens because most of the time, they occur together. With the help of a medical practitioner, you can sort out the issue.(2, 3)
Diagnosis of Lactose Intolerance
Your doctor will review the physical issues you are experiencing right after eating milk and milk products, your family history, and your eating habit. The doctor may also perform a physical examination and advice on a few pathological tests such as blood and stool tests.(2)
Treatment for Lactose Intolerance
If you are diagnosed with lactose intolerance, the doctor will advise you to stop milk and milk products at the earliest. Some patients may need to stop lactose-containing food products altogether while some may need to control the intake of such products.(2) Most people with lactose intolerance can eat lactose-containing food products in small quantities.
Lactose intolerance is a common issue. It is often run in the family history. The problem is more prevalent in Asia and Africa than in other parts of the world.(1,3) Changing your eating habit will keep you safe and healthy. Try lactose-containing food products in small or moderate quantities. Most people are safe when they eat these products in controlled amounts. If the problem still persists, you may need medical support and a doctor’s advice.