Many people experience pain and discomfort in the abdominal area after consuming milk and milk products such as cheese, yogurt and ice cream. If this occurs regularly, it may be due to a condition known as lactose intolerance which occurs when the body cannot produce sufficient lactase, the enzyme necessary to digest the sugar found in milk and milk products called lactose. While it’s impossible to cure lactose intolerance, you can take simple steps to find relief from the associated discomfort.
A lactase deficiency may be congenital, meaning it’s present from birth and genetically inherited; may result from injury to the small intestine or an intestinal disease; or may develop when lactase production decreases after childhood, according to the Mayo Clinic. The condition is more prevalent among African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and Asian Americans, states information from the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).
Typical symptoms of lactose intolerance include abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, gas and bloating. This discomfort usually appears 30 minutes to two hours after consuming milk products and can be mild to severe. Many other illnesses and conditions can cause these symptoms so it’s important to see a doctor for proper diagnosis of lactose intolerance. Some people may have a lactase deficiency but not suffer any discomfort or other symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic; only those with both low lactase levels and symptoms are considered to be lactose intolerant.
Tests to diagnose a lactase deficiency include a lactose tolerance test, in which you’ll drink a liquid with high levels of lactose, then give various blood samples over a 2-hour period to see how your body processes the lactose; a hydrogen breath test, which includes drinking a lactose liquid and having your breath tested numerous times for hydrogen, high levels of which can indicate an intolerance; and a stool acidity test that is usually reserved for children which measures the acid in stool.
Some lactose intolerant people can handle more lactose than others so managing the condition will depend on the individual. Your doctor may recommend dietary changes such as gradually introducing more milk products to allow your body to adjust or avoiding regular milk and eating milk products with lower lactose levels like yogurt and hard cheeses, says the NDDIC. Lactose-free milk products have the lactase enzyme added to them and are available at most supermarkets. Or purchase over-the-counter lactase enzyme tablets and drops if your doctor suggests them.
Milk products are an excellent source of calcium so if you’re avoiding milk, be sure to obtain your calcium requirement from lactose-free foods or a calcium supplement. Lactose intolerant individuals should be aware that milk is added to a large number of processed foods; the NDDIC recommends reading food ingredient labels and avoiding anything that contains milk, lactose, curds, whey, milk by-products, dry milk solids or nonfat dry milk powder. Lactose is even present in some birth control pills and over-the-counter and prescription medications.