Lactose is a kind of sugar that is found in milk and milk products. It is made up of two smaller sugars, glucose and galactose. For lactose to be digested and absorbed by the cells that line the small intestine, it must be broken down into these two smaller, simpler sugars. The process of breaking down milk sugar can only happen when the enzyme lactase is present in the gut.
Lactase is manufactured by our bodies and is found in the small intestine. When the amount of lactase our bodies produce is reduced or absent, we are unable to digest the lactose we consume, and we are considered to be "lactose intolerant."
Lactose intolerance is different from a "cow’s milk" intolerance or a milk protein allergy; however, the symptoms can appear similar. Because the body is unable to break down lactose, the undigested milk sugar sits in the gut causing gas, bloating, stomach cramps and often diarrhea. The symptoms can range from mild to severe depending upon both the amount of lactase the body produces and the quantity of lactose-containing foods consumed.
The most common cause of lactose intolerance is a decrease in the amount of lactase produced by the body. This often occurs after childhood, as we enter into adulthood. This is especially true among Asian, Native American and African American populations. Other causes of lactose intolerance can include a genetic defect that affects the body’s ability to produce lactase, as well as disorders such as Celiac Disease that affect the lining of the small intestine. Certain medications also can trigger temporary lactose intolerance.
For those who are lactose intolerant, there are a number of natural remedies and alternative health ideas they can try to help support their body’s ability to digest the sugars found in milk products.
Recommendations for wellness
Read food labels carefully. Many prepared foods contain milk or milk products. Beware of words such as butter, dried milk, milk solids, powdered milk or whey.
Try eating hard cheeses such as Swiss, colby or cheddar, which are naturally lower in lactose.
Some people are able to enjoy products such as whole milk or ice cream if they are taken in small amounts or if eaten with other kinds of foods at the same time. It has been found that slowing down the time that lactose-containing foods leave the stomach can support the digestion of milk-containing products.
Some people find foods that contain live cultures, such as yogurt, easier to digest.
A calcium deficiency is common in lactose-intolerant individuals. Ensure that your diet contains enough calcium rich foods to provide for healthy bone formation, or take a calcium supplement daily. Non-dairy foods that are high in calcium include dark green vegetables (such as broccoli), beans, tofu or fish (such as sardines or canned salmon).
Try supplementing your diet with the enzyme lactase. Lactase can often be found in either a pill or liquid form.