What is Lactose Intolerance and Lactose Sensitivity?
Does your stomach start rumbling every time you drink cow’s milk? Is ice cream a prelude to digestive pain? If so, then you may be intolerant to the milk sugar called lactose. In other words, your small intestine doesn’t produce enough of the enzyme lactase to helps break down the lactose properly. In turn, you can experience uncomfortable symptoms that make it hard to consume dairy products in your diet. Let’s learn more about what lactose intolerance and sensitivity are, the symptoms you should look out for, and how you can still enjoy your favorite foods while staying away from lactose in your daily diet.
All About Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance, as we mentioned above, occurs when a person doesn’t have enough lactase enzyme in their gut to break down the milk sugar lactose. Somewhere between 30 and 50 million Americans suffer from some form of lactose intolerance, while 5 to 15% of Europeans and 65 to 90% of adults in Africa and East Asia are lactose intolerant. For people who are not lactose intolerant, the lactose sugar is broken down into two simple sugars: glucose and galactose.
However, when someone is lactose intolerant, lactose moves straight into the colon instead of being broken down. In turn, normal bacteria react to the undigested lactose causing lactose intolerance symptoms.
There are three major types of lactose intolerance:
Primary lactose intolerance: This occurs when a person starts off with plenty of lactase early in life, but as they reach adulthood, their lactase production drops sharply.
Secondary lactose intolerance: This occurs when lactase production drops sharply after an illness like Crohn’s or celiac disease, injury, or surgery involving your small intestine.
Congenital lactose intolerance: This rare condition occurs when a baby is born with a lactase deficiency or complete lack of lactase activity.
How is lactose sensitivity different from lactose intolerance?
You may have heard the term lactose sensitivity before, and it’s important to know that this condition is different from lactose intolerance. Lactose sensitivity is when a person may be sensitive to lactose due to a variety of factors and could experience some digestive distress when consuming dairy products containing lactose. However, it differs from lactose intolerance since having an intolerance means that the body actually can’t digest lactose at all, which in turn causes symptoms.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance
When a person is lactose intolerant and consumes dairy products, they may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- Feeling of fullness
- Abdominal cramping
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- Nausea and/or vomiting
How is lactose intolerance diagnosed?
If you exhibit some of the symptoms above after consuming cow’s milk and milk products, then you may wonder if you have lactose intolerance. The following are some of the methods used to diagnose lactose intolerance:
- Hydrogen breath test: This test involves a person consuming a certain amount of lactose and then having a breath test done. If your breath contains more than 20 parts per million (ppm) compared with baseline, then you are likely lactose intolerant.
- Stool acidity test: This test involves providing a stool sample to be tested for its pH level. Since unabsorbed lactose is fermented colonic bacteria into lactic acid, a lower pH in the acidic range reveals a likely case of lactose malabsorption.
- Lactose tolerance test: This test involves ingesting a lactose-containing liquid and testing for the absorption of the liquid. After consuming the liquid, blood glucose levels are tested. If the blood glucose levels do not rise, then a person may be lactose intolerant.
- Small bowel biopsy: This test is rarely done since it is so invasive. However, it may be done to rule out secondary causes of lactose intolerance.
Are humans meant to drink cow’s milk?
Whether you are lactose intolerant or not, you may wonder whether dairy products made from cow’s milk are good for you as part of a healthy diet. This is because many trendy diets out there like the Paleogenic diet recommend avoiding dairy. There’s some debate about this, and some experts suggest that since cow’s milk is technically produced to feed baby calves, that it’s not really meant to be digested by humans. Therefore, it’s not necessarily essential to the human diet.
Now you may ask how you will receive nutrients found in dairy products like calcium if you don’t consume dairy products. Read below for tips on how to go lactose-free and still fit all the nutrients your body needs into your diet.
How to eat and drink lactose-free
Your lactose intolerance doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a tall glass of milk or some of your favorite foods like ice cream or yogurt. There are plenty of milk alternatives and products made from such milks that can satisfy your dairy product cravings. Examples of plant-based milks include:
- Non-GMO Soymilk
- Almond milk
- Coconut milk
- Cashew milk
- Oat milk
- Rice milk
- Hemp milk
- Quinoa milk
If you’re looking for a milk that has comparable protein content to cow’s milk, then non-GMO soymilk or lactose-free milk is your best bet. One cup of soymilk contains about 8 grams of protein and lactose-free milk is simply cow’s milk with the enzyme lactase added to it so it’s easier to digest. When it comes to calcium content, all the above cow’s milk alternatives contain about 300 milligrams of calcium or more per cup, which is comparable to cow’s milk. However, many people are sensitive to soy as well, and studies suggest too much can be harmful, so we don’t recommend consuming too much soy milk.
Many of these milk alternatives hold other health benefits too. Hemp milk is high in antioxidant-rich omega-3 fatty acids which can help to reduce inflammation in the body. Meanwhile, kefir, which is fermented cow’s milk, contains beneficial bacteria that is healthy for the gut, and the fermentation process helps make the cow’s milk in kefir low in lactose.
Coconut milk is a very popular milk alternative, and coconuts contain medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), as well as a host of vitamins and minerals.
Other tips for dealing with lactose intolerance
Besides sticking to low-lactose foods and beverages, you can use the following tips for reducing symptoms of this condition while still enjoying some dairy products from time to time only.
- Choose hard cheeses like cheddar, Monterey Jack, parmesan, or gouda, in which most of the lactose is removed
- Pick yogurts with live and active cultures that help to break down lactose
- Introduce very small amounts of milk and milk products to help reduce symptoms
Lactose is found in many delicious foods and drinks that may be on your favorites list. From ice cream and yogurt to milk and cheese, such lactose-containing dairy products can make any meal or beverage richer and more filling. However, for some people who are intolerant to lactose, such foods can trigger uncomfortable symptoms that are hard to bear. If you think you may be lactose intolerant, it may be necessary to overhaul your diet and replace higher lactose foods with low- to no-lactose foods. Lactose-free milk and other plant-based milks and related products can ensure you don’t feel deprived.