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Articles     |  17 June 2021

Understanding Lactose Intolerance

Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar that is found in dairy foods, such as cows’ milk. Those who are experiencing lactose intolerance usually do not have enough lactase, the enzyme needed to help break down lactose in the body. Lactase breaks lactose into two simple sugars, glucose and galactose, which are absorbed into the bloodstream via your intestinal lining.

When you are unable to break down lactose properly your food moves into the intestine instead of being processed and absorbed. It is here your normal gut bacteria start interacting with undigested lactose, which causes the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Some people may have a low level of lactase and still consume dairy products without any discomfort, so it is important to know the signs of lactose intolerance so you can manager your diet accordingly. Symptoms usually occur after eating or drinking dairy foods, approximately 30 minutes after consuming, though everyone is different.

Common signs you may experience with lactose intolerance are:

  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • Gas
  • Nauseous feeling, and vomiting

There are a few different factors that may contribute to someone being deficient in lactase. The three types of lactose intolerance are:

Primary – The most common type of intolerance, as infants we generally start out life producing enough lactase, though as we age and replace milk with other foods our lactase production drops, but normally still high enough to digest lactose. Though for some adults this production falls too much and makes milk products hard to digest.

Secondary – This occurs when your small intestine decreases the lactase production after illness, injury or surgery to the small intestine. This means those with certain illnesses may be at higher risk, including people who have experience bacterial overgrowth, bowel diseases, celiac disease or intestinal infections. With treatment of underlying conditions lactase levels may slowly improve symptoms, though not always.

Congenital – Rare, however some infants are born with lactose intolerance. This disorder is passed down through generations and both mum and dad have to pass on the same gene variation for the child to be impacts. Premature babies may also be born with congenital lactose intolerance.

It is important to recognise that a dairy allergy is different to lactose intolerance, and those with a dairy allergy should not consume any dairy foods, as this is a reaction from the immune system which can have serious and life-threatening affects.

Those with lactose intolerance, may be able to still consume dairy as part of their diet, though this should be monitored. Some smart diet tips for those wanting to still enjoy some dairy foods as part of their diet include:

  • Drinking milk in smaller quantities or a different type of milk such as goats’ milk or full cream. Start with a small amount and try to stay below ½ cup at any time, spreading diary foods across the day.
  • Yoghurt is low in lactose as its natural good bacteria breaks it down. Hard cheeses are also low in lactose.
  • Enzyme drops and tablets are available to add to regular milk or to take before consuming dairy foods to make dairy easier to digest.
  • Read the ingredient labels as lactose may be an ingredient in many grocery store items such as biscuits cakes, cheese sauces, creamy soups and custards. Look for ingredients such as milk solids, non-fat milk solids, whey and milk sugar.
  • Speak with your healthcare professional to ensure you are not missing out on important nutrients from your diet such as calcium, they are there to help you reach the best possible health.

This information does not take into account your personal situation and is general in nature. You should consider whether the information is appropriate for your needs and seek professional medical advice.

Always consult your healthcare professional before starting a new diet or if any concerns arise.