Lactose intolerance is a common disorder, affecting approximately 50 million Adults in America. Although the majority of individuals claim that they suddenly developed lactose intolerance, this is rarely the case. Even though damage or sickness of the intestines can cause random lactose intolerance; it develops slowly with age.
Definition of lactose
Lactose is a natural compound of sugar that is found in dairy products like milk. It is formed by the condensation of glucose and galactose molecules of sugar. Since processing eliminates some lactose, it is minimal in products like yogurt and cheese.
What is lactose intolerance?
Mammals produce lactose-rich milk for nursing their young. Infant mammals surviving on this milk produce lactase enzyme in optimal quantities. This, lactase enzyme breaks down lactose into simple sugar molecules that are easily absorbed by the body. With age, the production of enzyme decreases; it can also be caused by diseases or surgery of the intestines. The sub-optimal levels of the enzyme in the body result in lactose intolerance.
Insufficient quantities of the enzyme can pose a problem in the digestion of lactose. The undigested lactose starts accumulating in the gut; the bacteria of the gut start fermenting it to release by-products that cause various symptoms like gas, bloating or tummy ache.
The production of lactase is at its highest during birth; the enzyme breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose, thus, enabling effective digestion of breast milk. The production decreases with age as we start eating different foods and the dependence on dairy is reduced.
This means, even, if we continue to consume dairy products well into our adult life, we will become lactose tolerant. Before reaching the age of 20 years, approximately 30 million adults will display certain symptoms of lactose intolerance. Africans, Native Americans, and Asians are genetically at a higher risk of developing this condition compared to their European counterparts.
Apart from age, lactose intolerance can be as a result of bowel surgery, infections of the small intestines like bacteria, viruses and parasites and diseases of the intestines like Cohn’s or Celiac disease.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance
The severity of symptoms may vary in individual depending upon the level of lactase their body is producing. The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance include; cramps, nausea, bloating in the abdomen, gas, and diarrhea.
The above symptoms will normally appear after 30 minutes to 2 hours of taking dairy products. The problems may aggravate if larger quantities of dairy are consumed.
Can lactose intolerance develop randomly?
Under certain special circumstances, lactose intolerance may occur randomly. However, the development of this condition is normally a slow process.
Before embarking on any treatment, it is important to obtain a correct diagnosis from a doctor. The symptoms of various intestinal disorders are similar to those of lactose intolerance, increasing the chances of a confused diagnosis.
Although rare, the condition may be congenital or present at birth; this type of deficiency is hereditary, passing on from parent to child. Infants born to this condition can not tolerate any dairy products and have to be nursed on substitutes. It can also occur in premature babies when the intestines are not fully formed and fail to produce lactase. In such cases, the symptoms may subside when the intestine becomes fully functional.
Primary lactose intolerance is most common and is also hereditary in nature. It can occur to an individual at any time from the age of two to twenty.
In most other instances, the intolerance develops gradually in adolescent years or adulthood as the enzyme production in the body declines. Secondary lactose intolerance is usually due to a disease of the small intestine; ailments like inflammatory bowel syndrome, celiac disease, stomach flu or cystic fibrosis affect the production of the enzyme lactase. Injury or surgeries of the small intestine can also lead to a sudden development of lactose intolerance.
If the deficiency is resolved with time, the intolerance may subside. In all other cases, it remains permanent.
One of the simpler ways to access your ailment is to completely give up foods containing dairy if your symptoms diminish over time and disappear it may be clear indication of the condition. You can double-check the same by introducing small quantities of dairy to your diet and studying the effect. However, it is always advisable to consult a doctor for an accurate examination as some of the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance are common to serious intestinal diseases.
The doctor will prescribe an hydrogen breath analysis or a blood test both of which are conclusive diagnostic techniques for lactose intolerance. According to research, many people report lactose intolerance but do not pass the hydrogen test which is one of the best diagnostic methods for this condition.
The degree or the level of intolerance varies amongst individuals; certain individuals with lactose intolerance will have a severe reaction after consuming small amounts of any dairy product, while others may consume some dairy products without any adverse effect.
There is no known cure of lactose intolerance; the symptoms can be managed by controlling the diet. Substitute products that do not contain lactose while providing the benefits of dairy are a good choice. Yogurt and cheese are good choices since the process of fermentation breaks down lactose into compounds that can be absorbed by the body, easily. You can consume small quantities of milk along with meals or choose milk that has a lower percentage of lactose.
When to seek medical attention
If you experience discomfort every time you consume dairy products then it may be a good time to consult your doctor for a further examination of the nature of your symptoms. It can be counter-productive to give up dairy products on the basis of a belief, without confirming the diagnosis. Apart from affecting the intake of calcium and other nutrients found in milk products, a confused diagnosis can aggravate any other illness you might be suffering from.
A lot of people with lactose intolerance continue to consume dairy products without a flare-up; the condition can be managed adequately by substituting animal milk with other products soy milk or taking a supplementary dose of lactase to boost digestion.