Lactose intolerance is one of the most common food intolerances, and according to Allergy UK it could affect as many as one in five people. If you suspect either yourself or someone in your family might be a sufferer, here's what you need to know.
What is lactose intolerance?
A common digestive problem, it occurs when the body is unable to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. In general, the human body digests lactose by breaking it down into two sugars, glucose and galactose, in order that they can be easily absorbed into the bloodstream. It does this by way of a substance called lactase. Those who are lactose intolerance do not produce enough lactase, and this allows lactose to stay in the digestive system where it is fermented by bacteria.
Lactose intolerance can be temporary, and in young children is often caused by an infection in the digestive system. In adults, however, many cases are inherited and typically stay with them for life.
Both the severity of symptoms and the time it takes for them to manifest vary greatly from person to person. Some may find that a small glass of milk has little or no effect, while others may find the merest hint of dairy gives rise to problems, typically within a few hours of consumption. The most-common symptoms are flatulence, diarrhoea, bloating, stomach cramps and nausea.
Unfortunately the symptoms of lactose intolerance can be easily mistaken for other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or milk protein intolerance, but if you suspect lactose may be at the root of the problem, visit your GP. It is likely that the first course of action will be to omit lactose from your diet for a few weeks to see if the symptoms improve. Sometimes further tests are necessary, however, including a blood sample or hydrogen breath test.
Living with lactose intolerance
As with many food intolerances, there is no cure and treatment consists of a controlled diet. How dramatic the changes to your diet need to be will depend on your symptoms. As previously mentioned, some find they can tolerate a little milk, for example in tea or coffee. Others experience discomfort with the slightest hint of lactose. In general though, omitting lactose from the diet is the best way of coping, and that means cutting out standard dairy products, but also checking food labels, particularly for processed foods, many of which contain lactose. Watch out for ingredients such as whey and curds, as these aren't obviously dairy products but do contain lactose.
Thankfully there are an increasing number of lactose-free foods and drinks on the market now, including soya or almond milk and yoghurt, and dairy-free or vegan foods. Remember though that cutting out dairy means you may not be getting enough calcium in your diet. Once you are diagnosed you should be referred to a dietician who can help with ensuring that you getting all the nutrients you need, but in severe cases you may need to have regular bone mineral density checks.
Another alternative is to try lactase substitutes, available in liquid drops, tablets and capsules, usually from health food shops. These replace the lactase you are lacking and can reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance. These drops may also be helpful if you are breastfeeding a lactose intolerant child, although lactose-free formula milk is also available from pharmacies and supermarkets.
If you have a child who is lactose intolerant, it is particularly important to take note of any advice from your doctor or dietician regarding nutrition to ensure healthy growth and development.
Are you lactose intolerant? What alternative lactose-free products would you recommend to others? Leave your comments below...