Digestive problems seem to be common these days. Lactose intolerance is one of the longer-known problems, perhaps before the commonly heard ‘gluten intolerant’ or ‘celiac’. Lactose intolerance is one of the most common digestive issues, and affects between 30 million and 50 million Americans today. Generally we know that the problem occurs when we consume dairy, yet beyond that, what is actually happening within the body when a person has such an intolerance? How does the milk we consume affect our digestive system in such a negative way? And how can we best remedy such a condition?
What is Lactose Intolerance?
People with lactose intolerance are most commonly advised to avoid milk and dairy products. This is because dairy contains a natural sugar that the body cannot tolerate – If the body is lacking a particular enzyme that is necessary to break down the sugar found in lactose products. This enzyme is called ‘lactase’ and resides in the lining of the small intestine. In order for the nutrients in lactose to be absorbed, the human body needs this enzyme. Lactose intolerant individuals are lacking this.
Lactose moves through the body and into the large intestine and when it makes its way through without being properly digested, for intolerant people there can be painful and uncomfortable side effects such as cramping, bloating, gas and stomach pain. The intensity of these symptoms can vary, though on any scale none of them are pleasant. Some lactose intolerant victims can tolerate small amounts but other people have more severe reactions and can tolerate no dairy products at all.
The Challenges of Lactose Intolerance
African-Americans, Asians, and American Indians are most commonly associated with lactose intolerance. People who are lactose intolerant face the challenge of creating a diet that is dairy free, but also that accumulates enough calcium for the body that keeps their bones healthy and strong. Although milk is said to be the number one source of calcium there are actually other nutritious foods that are a high source of calcium – and that won’t affect the body in any negative way. These include sesame seeds and sesame products, leafy green vegetables, almonds and fish. You can also take calcium supplements, though be sure to see a doctor first to advise on new health regimes.
How Do We Know if we are Lactose Intolerant?
So you think you are lactose intolerant? First – check your symptoms. If they align with the symptoms of lactose intolerance (cramping, diarrhoea, abdominal bloating, gas) then it is time to see your doctor. This way you can rule out other significant digestive issues – or confirm that it is indeed lactose that is the culprit.
Cheese, because of its fermentation process, can sometimes be an exception to the lactose-intolerant rule. The harder the cheese, the less lactose it has. Extra sharp cheddar, Parmesan, Pecorino and aged gouda are good cheeses to try if you think you may be lactose intolerant. By process of elimination you can begin to read your body and understand what ails it and what is okay for it.
The doctor can perform a few simple tests to discover if it is lactose that is causing you grief. These include a blood test – where they give you a drink containing lactose before hand. Also a breath test, where they test for high levels of hydrogen. The doctors can also test your stools for high levels of undigested lactose that is being expelled from the body.
However you can do a DIY version. This involves filling up a huge glass of milk, knocking it back, and then documenting the after effects for your health professional. If you experienced the above-mentioned side effects, chances are you are lactose intolerant. But never fear – there are over-the-counter pills you can take to help aid in your discomfort. These pills help replace the missing enzyme momentarily, and thus allow you to consume dairy and have your body act as a fully-functioning digestive system should. And you may not even need to avoid dairy altogether. “Many lactase-deficient people ‘can tolerate small amounts of lactose,” says Stephen Bickston, an American Gastroenterological Association fellow and professor of internal medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University.
So stay in tune with your bodies! And remember – if pain persists, see a doctor.