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Overview 

Individuals who are lactose intolerant cannot digest the carbohydrate lactose which is found in milk. The condition is also referred to as lactose malabsorption and although it is a harmless condition, it can cause quite a bit of discomfort for the affected person.

Cause

The main issue behind lactose intolerance is the deficiency of lactase, the enzyme that is produced by the small intestine and is responsible for digesting/breaking down lactose. 

If lactose isn't broken down, it enters the colon where the bacteria in the organ reacts with the carbohydrate resulting in the clinical presentation of lactose intolerance.

There are three types of lactose intolerance with different factors causing the deficiency in lactase. They are:

  • Primary lactose intolerance - the most common of the three types of the condition and develops as a result of genetic factors. As one gets older, the lactase produced by the small intestines decreases.  
  • Secondary lactose intolerance - secondary issues such as infections, surgery or injury to the small intestines results in a decreased production of lactase. Illnesses such as celiac disease, Crohn's disease, and bacterial overgrowth are the most common problems.
  • Congenital lactose intolerance - this is a rare cause, but some babies may be born with a complete inability to produce lactase. This may occur in babies born prematurely or this can be a genetic problem where both parents pass down an abnormal gene that results in the condition.  

Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance usually begin around 30 minutes to two hours after ingesting products that contain lactose. These may include:

  • Nausea.
  • Sometimes vomiting.
  • Abdominal cramps.
  • Bloating.
  • Diarrhea.
  • An increased passing of gas.

Management

Unfortunately, there is currently no way to stimulate the body to produce lactase but there are suggestions and recommendations to follow that can help to prevent the issues associated with lactose intolerance:

  • Avoid eating and drinking large quantities of milk and other dairy products.
  • Substitute dairy products with lactose-reduced alternatives.
  • Some dairy products such as yogurts and hard cheeses don't cause severe lactose intolerance symptoms.
  • Include small servings of dairy products together with meals as this helps to slow down the digestive process and reduce symptoms. 
  • Using lactase supplements just before consuming dairy products.
Lactase tablets are safe and effective supplements that help to digest lactose in those who are lactose intolerant. One main side effect of this supplement includes a possible allergic reaction to it, but there doesn't seem to be any other issues associated with the product. Lactase drops are also available to add to milk. It's important to take note though that lactase supplements may not be given to children under 4 years of age and not everyone with a lactase deficiency may benefit from these products.  

If one chooses to rather avoid dairy products altogether, they will have to make sure they get their calcium intake through other foods such as oranges, broccoli, spinach, rhubarb, pinto beans, and canned salmon.

Probiotics may also be useful in helping to digest lactose in the gut so these can also be used. These are very safe supplements and can be used by babies up to the elderly without experiencing any major issues.

 

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