If you think you might have lactose intolerance, you’re not alone.
According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 30 and 50 million Americans are struggling with the same condition.
Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder that impedes an individual’s ability to digest foods that contain lactose. Some of these foods include cheese, milk, butter, ice cream, and non-probiotic yogurt. While other foods are difficult for lactose intolerant individuals to digest, these can be especially difficult.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT LACTOSE INTOLERANCE
Having detailed just how prevalent lactose intolerance is in America, let’s take a closer look at who is most likely to develop the condition. According to a study published by Cornell Chronicle, a weekly newspaper published by Cornell University, 75 percent of African Americans and 90 percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant. In all cases where these individuals have developed an intolerance to lactose, their bodies couldn’t produce lactase. That is the enzyme that facilitates the digestion of lactose.
To further put this into perspective, lactose is the sugar commonly found in milk and many other dairy products. If an individual is lactose intolerant, they will discover that lactose does not fully digest in their stomach and small intestines. Any remaining lactose that has not digested eventually moves into the colon and triggers an array of unpleasant symptoms. Something else to note when it comes to lactose intolerance, most individuals are not born with the condition. Instead, they develop it later on in life, usually in their 20s.
HOW TO TELL IF YOU’RE LACTOSE INTOLERANT?
Now we’ve defined what it means to be lactose intolerant, let’s take a moment to detail some of the symptoms. The 12 most common signs that an individual is lactose intolerant include the following:
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bloody stool
- Swelling in face or lips
- Tightness in neck or throat
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
DAIRY ALLERGIES VS. BEING LACTOSE INTOLERANT
It is important to note that lactose intolerance-related symptoms can sometimes mimic those associated with dairy allergies. Therefore, your physician is the resource to help determine the root of your digestive problems. Along with with lactose intolerance-related symptoms, individuals with severe dairy allergies may also experience anaphylaxis shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction that requires prompt medical attention. Some of the risk factors for developing dairy allergies include
- You have other allergies
- One or both of your parents have dairy or other allergies
- You have eczema
Along with avoiding foods with known allergens, those with dairy allergies should look into getting a prescription for injectable epinephrine. They can carry this to help combat a severe allergic reaction.
HOW DOES A DOCTOR DIAGNOSE IF A PATIENT IS LACTOSE INTOLERANT?
Although experiencing digestive symptoms shortly after consuming dairy-based foods might indicate that you are lactose intolerant, the only way to know for sure is by seeing a physician. During your appointment, your physician will perform a variety of tests to determine whether your symptoms are related to an intolerance to lactose or dairy allergies. Some of the more commonly performed tests include:
Lactose intolerance-based testing
One of the procedures that your physician will conduct to determine if your digestive symptoms are related to an intolerance to lactose entails drinking a liquid that contains it. From there, the physician will measure the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. If your blood glucose levels remain unchanged, it usually indicates that your body is not digesting the lactose from the drink that you consumed, which is generally a sign of being lactose intolerant. Additional tests that can help determine if an individual is lactose intolerant include the following:
Stool acidity testing
Although commonly performed on children, a stool acidity test can also be done on adults. This type of test measures how much lactic acid is in a patient’s stool following a bowel movement. High amounts of lactic acid in a patient’s stool usually indicates that they are lactose intolerant.
Hydrogen breath test
This particular test will require patients to drink a liquid that contains lactose, such as fruit juice, for example. From there, the physician will measure the hydrogen in the patient’s breath. If hydrogen is not detected after a patient has consumed lactose, it generally means that the substance is not being digested properly.
Dairy allergy-based testing
If initial testing reveals that a patient is not lactose intolerant, most physicians will run additional tests to determine if their digestive symptoms are related to dairy allergies. The most common test used to confirm whether or not a patient is allergic to dairy is a skin prick test.
For those who may not be as familiar with them, a skin prick test entails placing a known dairy allergen under the patient’s skin, usually on the back or forearm. If the skin becomes inflamed and a raised bump appears, the patient may be allergic to dairy. In some cases, the physician will also order a blood test, which will enable them to measure the antibodies in the blood to determine if a patient is allergic to dairy.
WHAT TREATMENTS ARE AVAILABLE FOR THOSE STRUGGLING WITH LACTOSE INTOLERANCE?
Whether you’re lactose intolerant or struggling with dairy allergies, the best way to resolve unpleasant digestive symptoms is by making small changes to your diet. For example, eliminating dairy-based foods from your diet can go a long way toward providing some much-needed relief. And you don’t have to feel like you’re depriving yourself of the foods you love as there are a variety of lactose-free milk, cheeses, yogurts, and many other dairy-based products currently on the market. It is important to note that some non-dairy foods also contain lactose, so you will want to read the ingredient labels on these foods to ensure that they don’t contain milk. Some of these foods include
- Peanut butter
- Canned tuna
- Sports drinks
- Salad dressing
- Deli meats
- Certain types of bread
- Instants soups
Along with eliminating or cutting back on dairy-based foods, taking over-the-counter medications, such as Lactaid, Dairy Ease, and others that contain lactase enzymes, which breaks down lactose, can help relieve many of the symptoms commonly associated with lactose intolerance. Another way to combat digestive symptoms is by consuming probiotics. Although many yogurts can contribute to digestive problems if you’re lactose intolerant, those that contain probiotics can have the opposite effect. In short, the probiotics in yogurt contain live cultures that are effective in resolving diarrhea, gas, bloating, and several other gastrointestinal conditions.
ARE THERE ANY SAFE DAIRY OPTIONS AVAILABLE FOR THOSE WHO ARE LACTOSE INTOLERANT?
Something to note when it comes to lactose intolerance and dairy products is that not all dairy products are created equal. While some products may trigger severe symptoms, others might only cause mild discomfort.
Let’s further put this into context. Many individuals who are lactose intolerant can still enjoy certain types of cheese. These include cheddar or Swiss, for example, as they contain minimal amounts of lactose. Conversely, they must avoid Brie, cottage cheese, and mozzarella, which are high in lactose and can trigger symptoms.
It is also worth noting that many people who are lactose intolerant can still enjoy fermented dairy products with little to no discomfort. In short, the bacteria used in the fermenting process, namely Lactobacillus, Lactococcus, and Leuconostoc, helps create enzymes that work to break down lactose in the colon.
CAN THIS CONDITION BE CURED?
This article details many dietary changes that can help ease many of the symptoms that individuals who are lactose intolerant might experience. However, there is no cure for the condition. The only exception is if an individual becomes lactose intolerant due to an intestinal injury. In such cases, treating the injury will indirectly resolve the individual’s symptoms.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON LACTOSE INTOLERANCE
In summation, lactose intolerance can significantly impact an individual’s overall quality of life. However, there are ways to keep symptoms from spiraling out of control. First and foremost, with the help of a physician, you will need to determine if your digestive problems are related to an intolerance to lactose or dairy allergies. From there, you will need to make a few changes to your diet and also take over-the-counter medications as needed.