Back in High School, I remember explaining to my doctor that my stomach felt like a lava lamp each and every day. He laughed at my explanation, but it was the truth! Each day I had pockets of gas painfully churning inside me due to all of the dairy products I was consuming. Luckily, he suggested a week off of dairy products only to find that I was indeed lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance, also called lactase deficiency, means you aren't able to fully digest the milk sugar (lactose) in dairy products. It's usually not dangerous, but symptoms of lactose intolerance can be uncomfortable.
The problem behind lactose intolerance is a deficiency of lactase — an enzyme produced by the lining of your small intestine. Many people have low levels of lactase, but most don't experience signs and symptoms. Only people with both low lactase levels who also have associated signs and symptoms have, by definition, lactose intolerance.
Being diagnosed with lactose intolerance was devastating for me at that age, but I've learned to make healthier decisions with dairy free options as well as obtaining important nutrients from natural foods.
Interestingly enough, there are three types of lactose intolerance:
1. Normal result of aging for some people (primary lactose intolerance)
Normally, your body produces large amounts of lactase at birth and during early childhood, when milk is the primary source of nutrition. Usually your lactase production decreases as your diet becomes more varied and less reliant on milk. This gradual decline may lead to symptoms of lactose intolerance.
2. Result of illness or injury (secondary lactose intolerance)
This form of lactose intolerance occurs when your small intestine decreases lactase production after an illness, surgery or injury to your small intestine. It can occur as a result of intestinal diseases, such as celiac disease, gastroenteritis and an inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn's disease. Treatment of the underlying disorder may restore lactase levels and improve signs and symptoms, though it can take time.
3. Condition you're born with (congenital lactose intolerance)
It's possible, but very rare, for babies to be born with lactose intolerance caused by a complete absence of lactase activity. This disorder is passed from generation to generation in a pattern of inheritance called autosomal recessive. This means that both the mother and the father must pass on the defective form of the gene for a child to be affected. Infants with congenital lactose intolerance are intolerant of the lactose in their mothers' breast milk and have diarrhea from birth. These babies require lactose-free infant formulas.
There's currently no way to boost your body's production of the lactase enzyme. People with lactose intolerance usually find relief from signs and symptoms by reducing the amount of dairy products they eat and using special products made for people with this condition.
1. Eat fewer dairy products
This is the best bet for people with lactose intolerance to reduce their signs and symptoms. There is an argument that those who avoid milk will end up being deficient in multiple nutrients including (but not limited to) calcium, B Vitamins, protein, Vitamin D, copper and zinc. This is plain silly and if you're eating a balanced diet there's no need for milk. The line of reasoning has been created by those in the dairy industry with the main threat being a decrease in calcium consumption. Calcium is found in many other foods, such as almonds, book choy broccoli, canned salmon, kale, milk substitutes (oat, almond, rice, hemp or soy milk), oranges, pinto beans, rhubarb, spinach or tofu.
2. Experiment with an assortment of dairy products
Not all dairy products have the same amount of lactose. For example, hard cheeses, such as Swiss or cheddar, have small amounts of lactose and generally cause no symptoms. You may well be able to tolerate cultured milk products, such as yogurt, because the bacteria used in the culturing process naturally produce the enzyme that breaks down lactose.
3. Watching out for hidden lactose
Milk and lactose are often added to prepared foods, such as cereal, instant soups, salad dressings, nondairy creamers, processed meats and baking mixes. Check nutrition labels for milk and lactose in the ingredient list. Also look for other words that indicate lactose, such as whey, milk byproducts, fat-free dry milk powder and dry milk solids. Lactose is also used in medications. Tell your pharmacist if you have lactose intolerance.
4. Use caution if you choose to eat dairy products
It may not be necessary to completely avoid dairy foods. Most people with lactose intolerance can enjoy some milk products without symptoms. You may even be able to increase your tolerance to dairy products by gradually introducing them into your diet.
5. Consume probiotics
Probiotics are living organisms present in your intestines that help maintain a healthy digestive system. Probiotics are also available as active or "live" cultures in some yogurts and as supplements in capsule form. Probiotics can be found in many fermented foods such as sauerkraut, raw kombucha tea, miso or tempeh. These are sometimes used for gastrointestinal conditions such as diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. They may also help your body digest lactose. Probiotics are a safe and easy way to help lactose intolerance as well as keep your digestive system healthy.
6. Use lactase enzyme tablets or drops
Over-the-counter tablets or drops containing the lactase enzyme may help you digest dairy products. You can take tablets just before a meal or snack. Or the drops can be added to a carton of organic milk. Not everyone with lactose intolerance is helped by these products. I keep Lactaid pills with me wherever I go just in case I'm out and a food contains a little dairy.
Are you lactose intolerant?
The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance usually begin 30 minutes to two hours after eating or drinking foods that contain lactose. Common signs and symptoms include:
- Abdominal cramps
Symptoms are usually mild, but they may sometimes be severe. Let me know if you have any questions regarding lactose intolerance (I'm pushing over 15 years now). I would love to share some dairy-free alternatives with you or hear some of your own below!
Keep it fresh!