Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, which is a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency of lactase, an enzyme that is produced by the lining of the small intestine.
Enzymes help the body to absorb food during digestion. Lactase is an enzyme that breaks down lactose. When the body is deficient of this enzyme it has difficulty digesting sources of lactose and may result in feelings of abdominal discomfort accompanied by bloating, gas and diarrhea soon after ingesting dairy products.
Lactose intolerance is a fairly common condition with an estimated 30 million adults suffering from it in the United States. African American, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian populations are more likely to develop lactose intolerance than Americans of European descent.
Lactose intolerance can also develop following a severe illness or as a result of injury to the small intestine. Conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease and other digestive diseases can all cause the onset of lactose intolerance.
Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance
People with lactose intolerance may experience discomfort 30 minutes to 2 hours following the consumption of milk and other dairy products. Symptoms range from mild to severe, and depend upon a number of factors, including how much lactose was consumed and the amount of lactose that the individual can tolerate.
Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
- Abdominal pain or cramps
- Abdominal bloating
Diagnosis of Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance is difficult to diagnose based purely on its symptoms because many of the symptoms could be a result of another digestive condition. One of the most common forms of diagnosis and treatment for the symptoms of lactose intolerance is to refrain from the consumption of all milk and dairy products. If your gastroenterologist suspects that you may be suffering from lactose intolerance then there are a number of additional tests that may be recommended to confirm the diagnosis.
Undigested lactose produces increased levels of hydrogen in the breath and acid in the stool. A hydrogen breath test and a stool acidity test measure the levels of hydrogen and acid to determine if there is an abnormality in the digestion process of lactose, or a lactase deficiency.
Treatment of Lactose Intolerance
Decreasing or removing milk products from the diet often relieves the discomfort associated with lactose intolerance. Many people with lactose intolerance are able to consume small amounts of dairy without experiencing any symptoms. The amount of dietary restriction necessary to relieve the symptoms of lactose intolerance varies. Lactose-free and lactose reduced milk products are available as a substitute to traditional dairy products, and over the counter lactase enzyme tablets are also available to aid in the management of lactose intolerance.