The ins and outs of being lactose intolerant

When someone is lactose intolerant, it means that they are unable to digest lactose, which is a type of sugar found in milk and several other dairy products.

This inability to digest the enzyme ‘lactose’ is caused by the small intestine not making enough of it. This type of enzyme helps the body digest food, so when there is a lack of it, digestion cannot happen.

A person can become lactose intolerant at any point in their life, although it is most common in adulthood, with children also starting to show signs of it around the age of three. Common symptoms include:

  • Bloating of the abdomen
  • Cramps in the abdomen
  • Diarrhoea
  • Flatulence
  • Nausea
  • Slow growth
  • Frequent weight loss

There are two tests used to diagnose an intolerance of lactose. These are the hydrogen breath test and the stool acidity test, both of which are carried out by your doctor. Firstly, the hydrogen breath test involves the person drinking something high in lactose, with their breath analysed at several different intervals, so the amount of hydrogen can be measured. Undigested lactose products show up as a high level of hydrogen, so this is an ideal test. Secondly, the stool acidity test is mainly used for infants and small children. Again, undigested lactose shows up as a high amount of acid in stools, and is therefore a good indicator of someone suffering from this type of intolerance.

This is best treated by completing removing products containing lactose from the diet, with the removal of milk often improving the symptoms within just a few hours. It’s not possible to completely cure someone who is lactose intolerant; however, it’s rare for someone to not be able to drink milk at all. Normally drinking a small amount, such as up to 4 ounces a day will quite often be fine, without any symptoms shown. Also, not all foods containing milk are completely indigestible. Products that may be easier to digest are:

  • Buttermilk
  • Cheeses
  • Ice cream
  • Milkshakes
  • Soy milk
  • Lactose milk

An important point to remember is that those who are lactose intolerant should make sure they get enough vitamin C and D, whilst not getting these vitamins by drinking milk. These can be found in many other foods, so it’d be a good idea to talk to a dietician about how you can still have a balanced diet.

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