All About Lactose Intolerance
If you’re lactose intolerant, you’re not alone. About 65% of the world’s adult population is unable to digest the sugar found in milk and products made with milk, and that number is closer to 100% among certain ethnicities. Thankfully, science has made it possible for us to get all the nutrients found in milk without having to endure the unpleasant side-effects of consuming it.
What is Lactose Intolerance and What Causes It?
As infants, we get all our sustenance from milk, either by breastfeeding or from formula. Our bodies necessarily produce lactase, an enzyme in our intestines that breaks down the milk sugar lactose so it can be absorbed into our bloodstream. After about the age of five, however, we experience a drop in lactase and with it our ability to digest lactose. That undigested lactose winds up in our colon, where it encounters bacteria that cause diarrhea, gas, bloating and abdominal pain as it travels through and out of our digestive tract.
Who is Lactose Intolerant?
Some infants are born with a lactase deficiency, although this is rare, and some adults can experience reduced lactase levels following surgery or as a result of illness. The majority of adults of Asian, African, American Indian, and Hispanic descent are lactose intolerant, while people of European descent tolerate lactose most easily.
Why is it a Problem?
Well, it’s not, really, unless you absolutely love drinking milk. Most people, even those who are lactose intolerant, can still digest small amounts of lactose, such as that found in one cup of milk. Fermented milk products, such as cheese and yogurt are even more easily tolerated. If you are truly unable to tolerate any lactose at all, even the very small amounts found in snack foods, then you must simply avoid those foods. It’s still important to get the recommended daily amounts of the nutrients found in milk, however, so be sure to eat foods rich in calcium or take calcium supplements if you can’t eat dairy. Many foods are fortified with calcium, and others, such as canned fish, dark leafy greens, and soy products naturally contain this mineral that is vital to our bone health.
What’s the Bottom Line?
If you experience digestive discomfort after ingesting milk products, you can try avoiding them and see if that helps. Your doctor can also perform certain tests if you want to be sure. There are many lactose-free versions of dairy products available, and most people can tolerate small amounts without trouble.