Typically our bodies produce the enzyme lactase in the small intestine. Lactase works to convert the lactose found in milk and other dairy products into the simpler sugars glucose and galactose which are then absorbed into the bloodstream.
People with lactose intolerance, however, lack enough lactase and are therefore unable to break down the lactose. This can result in uncomfortable digestive symptoms. The following is information on lactose intolerance natural treatments.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance?
Symptoms of lactose intolerance can range from mild to severe and are generally digestive related. They can include abdominal discomfort, gas, bloating, diarrhea and nausea. Most often symptoms occur anywhere from half an hour to two hours after eating foods containing lactose as the undigested enzyme moves into the colon and interacts negatively with the intestinal bacteria.
What Causes It?
There are several causes of lactose intolerance.
- General Aging. As many people age the amount of lactase in their small intestine slowly decreases which can lead to lactose intolerance.
- Specific Problem. Other times an issue with the small intestine such as an illness, injury or surgery can result in decreased amounts of lactase. In cases such as these treating the underlying illness such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease can sometimes help return lactase levels to normal.
- Congenital Issue. Although rare, occasionally babies are born with no lactase. This is a hereditary disorder and is treated by giving the infant lactose-free infant formula.
- Prematurity at Birth. Infants’ lactase levels rise in the third trimester so babies born prematurely may be lactose intolerant.
How Is It Diagnosed?
If lactose intolerance is suspected, one easy way to help determine a diagnosis is to eliminate dairy from the diet for several days and note if symptoms decrease or disappear. Keeping a food and symptom log can be helpful as milk and other foods are slowly re-introduced.
Tests are available as well.
- Lactose Tolerance Test. In the lactose tolerance test an individual drinks something with high levels of lactose and then has blood drawn two hours later. In people with normal lactase levels there should be more glucose in the blood due to the lactose being broken down during digestion. If a glucose rise is not observed this can indicate lactose intolerance.
- Hydrogen Breath Test. This is similar to the lactose tolerance test in that a liquid with high levels of lactose is drunk. Instead of a blood test, however, the person has their breath measured periodically for amounts of hydrogen. Normally there is not much hydrogen but in the absence of lactase the lactose ferments in the colon and results in hydrogen released during exhalation.
- Stool Acidity Test. The stool acidity test can detect whether lactic acid and other acids caused by fermentation of lactose in the colon are present thereby indicating lactose intolerance. This is mainly used for babies and children unable to do the other tests.
How Is It Treated?
There is no cure for lactose intolerance. However, there are things that can be done to make life easier.
- Cut back on dairy. Many people find the best result from decreasing the amount of dairy in their diets to reduce symptoms. If this is done, be sure to still get enough calcium and vitamin D from other sources. Also, watch out for hidden lactose in unexpected places like cereal, salad dressing, baking mixes and more. Ingredients such as whey, dry milk solids and milk byproducts should all be red flags.
- Choose the dairy that is eaten carefully. Swiss and cheddar cheese, for example, have only small amounts of lactose while the bacteria in yogurt breaks down lactose and therefore may be easier to tolerate.
- Re-think eating habits. Consume smaller servings of dairy to reduce the chance of problems. In addition, drinking milk at mealtime with other foods can lengthen the digestive process and might decrease symptoms.
- Try substitutions. Instead of regular milk experiment with lactose-reduced or lactose-free milk and other products.
- Give lactase tablets a try. Several brands of lactase-containing over-the-counter tablets are available. These can be taken right before eating dairy and may lessen discomfort.
- Probiotics. Probiotics may help some people and can be found in certain yogurts and as supplements.
Written by Kristen Stewart
Kristen is a freelance writer specializing in health, nutrition, parenting and lifestyle topics. To learn more, visit her website at kristenestewart.com.