Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance or lactase deficiency refers to the inability to properly digest lactose, which is the sugar found in dairy products. It is not a serious condition but the symptoms of lactose intolerance can lead to considerable discomfort. The reason why some people are unable to fully digest lactose is that they lack an enzyme known as lactase. The lining of the small intestine is responsible for the production of lactase. A large number of individuals have low lactase levels but don’t experience any symptoms. Lactose intolerance is said to occur when low lactase levels are present along with the associated symptoms. It is possible to manage the condition by restricting your consumption of dairy products.

Symptoms for Lactose Intolerance

There are various signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance. These symptoms usually occur half an hour to two hours after eating foods which contain lactose. The common symptoms of lactose intolerance include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Flatulence
  • Bloating
  • Cramps

The symptoms are mostly mild, but can become severe in some cases. It is advisable to consult a doctor in case you experience discomfort due to the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Causes for Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance occurs when the enzyme lactase is produced by the small intestine in low quantities. Lactase is released by the cells that make up the lining of the small intestine. Lactase binds to lactose in the food and breaks them down into glucose and galactose, two simple sugars that can be easily absorbed in the blood stream. When there are low levels of lactase, the lactose in the food does not get broken down and moves into the colon. The bacteria present in the intestines act upon it and this triggers symptoms of bloating and diarrhea. The main causes for lactose intolerance are consumption of foods containing lactose.

Lactose intolerance is classified into three types:

  • Primary Lactose Intolerance – The body produces high levels of lactase during birth and childhood. But this production reduces, when milk stops being the main source of nutrition and the diet expands to include a variety of foods.
  • Secondary Lactose Intolerance – The small intestine may reduce its production of lactase during illness, injury or surgery. Lactase production may also drop due to intestinal diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and gastroenteritis. Once the underlying condition is treated, the symptoms of lactose intolerance may subside.
  • Congenital Lactose Intolerance – In rare cases, lactase activity may be completely absent. This is an inherited condition known as autosomal recessive in which the defective gene is passed on by both the mother and father. Babies born with this condition are not able to tolerate lactose present in breast milk and must be fed with lactose-free formulas.

Certain factors may increase your risk of developing lactose intolerance:

  • Lactose intolerance is not common in childhood, but becomes increasingly common as a person advances in age.
  • Certain ethnic races are more vulnerable to developing lactose intolerance.
  • Premature babies may have low levels of lactase as the production of the enzyme increases during the third trimester.
  • Diseases that affect the small intestine such as celiac disease and bacterial infection can lead to lactose intolerance.
  • Individuals who have undergone radiation therapy for abdominal cancer may be at a higher risk of developing lactose intolerance.

Remedies for Lactose Intolerance

There is no lactose intolerance treatment because it is not possible to increase the production of lactase in the body. Health care measures therefore involve controlling the symptoms of lactose intolerance by restricting the consumption of dairy products. There are many lactose-free foods available for individuals with lactose intolerance. Home remedies for lactose intolerance include:

  • Cocoa powder is known to aid in the digestion of lactose. Cocoa slows down the rate at which the stomach empties and hence reduces the amount of lactose that enters the system. This helps to control the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
  • Sardines are an excellent calcium source and are good for people who cannot consume milk and dairy products. Other foods that are rich in calcium include salmon, dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds and dried apricots.
  • Chocolate contains calcium which is easily absorbed and people with lactose intolerance will be able to tolerate it better than regular milk.
  • Hard cheeses have lower levels of lactose content than softer cheeses such as cottage and cream cheese.
  • Substitute cow’s milk with soy milk. It may take a while to get used to the taste, but it will not cause lactose intolerance. If you don’t like drinking plain soy milk, you can add it to recipes that require milk.
  • Yogurt contains active cultures that have high amounts of calcium and hence are beneficial for individuals with lactose intolerance. Studies show that the bacterial cultures found in yogurt produce some amount of lactase enzyme that is necessary for proper digestion.
  • Saffron is an expensive herb that helps to eliminate toxins from the bloodstream. Saffron also helps in digestion and improving circulation to the digestive organs such as the spleen, liver and gallbladder. The herb forms a coating over the membranes of the colon, small intestine and stomach and this helps to prevent digestive problems. It also prevents the formation of gas in the stomach and thus relieves the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
  • Chamomile is a beneficial natural treatment for some of the symptoms of lactose intolerance such as stomach aches, intestinal spasms, gas, diarrhea and bloating and cramps. You can even consume chamomile as an herbal tea.
  • Ginger helps to soothe pain and cramps arising from digestive problems. You can use powdered ginger root to prepare a beneficial tea. You can also add ginger to foods while cooking.

Diet for Lactose Intolerance

The primary feature of any diet for lactose intolerance is the absence or reduction of dairy products. Since dairy products are rich in calcium, it is advisable to include other calcium sources in your diet such as almonds, broccoli, bok choy, kale, canned tuna, canned salmon, soy milk, tofu, spinach and oranges. You can also consult a dietician for advice on which lactose intolerance foods are good for you and how to incorporate calcium in your diet.

People with lactose intolerance are able to eat some dairy products without experiencing any symptoms. It is also possible to build tolerance to dairy products by slowly introducing them into your diet. Here are some tips to control the symptoms of lactose intolerance:

  • Opt for smaller servings of dairy products. You are less at risk of developing any digestive disorder when you consume smaller servings. Drink only up to four ounces of milk at one time.
  • You can consume milk along with other foods as this slows down the process of digestion and thus reduces the risk of developing symptoms of lactose intolerance.
  • Different dairy products have varying amounts of lactose. While fresh milk with its high lactose content, would most likely trigger symptoms, a dairy product like hard cheese would be unlikely to cause any symptoms, because of its low lactose content. You can also opt for culture dairy products such as yogurt due to the beneficial lactase-producing bacteria they contain. Buttermilk is also known to be more tolerable and contains a lower amount of fat and cholesterol than regular milk.
  • Lactose-free products are widely available today and are a safe choice for those with lactose intolerance.
  • Other than dairy products, many other foods also contain lactose. It is important to inspect food labels carefully when buying such foods. If they contain ingredients such as dry milk solids, whey and milk byproducts, then it means they contain lactose. Some examples of these foods include instant soups, processed meats, cereal and salad dressings.
  • Lactose may also be found in some medications and it is advisable to check with your doctor or pharmacist before buying them.
  • Some people with lactose intolerance benefit from enzyme drops or tablets. These contain the enzyme lactase and thus aid in digestion of dairy foods. The tablets may be consumed before eating. Enzyme drops may even be added to milk.
  • Many people with lactose intolerance are deficient in calcium. This can pose the risk of osteoporosis. In case you are not able to get adequate calcium through other sources, talk to you doctor about taking a calcium supplement. Milk is also a major source of vitamin D and eliminating milk from the diet may lead to deficiencies of the vitamin. For this reason it would also be a good idea to ask your doctor about vitamin supplementation as well.

Suggestions for Lactose Intolerance

Babies usually do not display any signs of lactose intolerance until they are at least five years of age. In case your baby is experiencing diarrhea or stomach pain after feedings, talk to you doctor about it. Your doctor may inquire about the nature of your baby’s symptoms to determine if lactose intolerance is a possibility. You may be advised to eliminate all lactose sources from your baby’s diet for some time. In case an intolerance or allergy to cow’s milk is suspected, your doctor may conduct further tests or advise you to consult a dietician.


  1. LOIS D McBEAN, GREGORY D MILLER, Allaying Fears and Fallacies about Lactose Intolerance, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 98, Issue 6, June 1998, Pages 671-676, ISSN 0002-8223, 10.1016/S0002-8223(98)00152-7.

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