Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk that needs a specific enzyme (lactase) in the digestive tract to break it down further for use by the body. For adults who don’t have these enzymes, consuming dairy products can trigger some pretty unpleasant digestive issues like bloating, gas, cramps and even diarrhea. It was once believed that all adults had these lactase enzymes present from birth—and it’s true that babies do—but once weaned, researchers realized that the amount drops dramatically. In fact, estimates show that in some ethnic populations, up to 90% of adults may lack the ability to properly digest dairy and that up to 65% of adults worldwide struggle with the lactose intolerance.
Could you be lactose intolerant?Here are a few signs you should explore with your healthcare provider:
- You or your family is from a part of the word where lactose intolerance is high like East Asia, East Africa, Italy, Greece, the Arabian Peninsula or you’re of Jewish descent.
- You have digestive symptoms that develop between 30 minutes and 2 hours after consuming dairy.
- Other conditions like influenza, reactions to medications or a stomach bug have been ruled out by your doctor.
- When you stop eating lactose, your symptoms stop.
- You have any combination of digestive issues:
— Lower abdominal pain
— Black tarry stools
— Bright red blood in stools
— Abdominal pain that gets better when you eat
Properly diagnosing lactose intolerance can be a tricky process. Because many people can tolerate a little bit of lactose depending on the source, you may not have symptoms all the time. For example, you may be able to have yogurt at lunch but not a glass of milk with dinner. Everyone’s symptoms will vary—and keep in mind that lactose isn’t found just in dairy products. Anything that contains dairy like bread, frozen pancakes and even your favorite malted milk balls can contain lactose so it’s good to pay attention to the ingredients on the foods you eat.
Testing options for lactose intolerance
Testing for lactose intolerance can take a few forms. These include drinking a liquid that contains high levels of lactose and having blood work to check for spikes in blood sugar levels. If the levels don’t rise, that means your body isn’t digesting the lactose. Another option is to perform a breath test that monitors how much hydrogen you breathe out. When lactose isn’t digested properly it will ferment in the colon and release hydrogen and other gases that can be detected with a machine. If these don’t sound like a good time, you might consider genetic testing for nutrition that can give great insight into what’s happening deep within your cells. This information can help guide your healthcare team about not only lactose intolerance but also other factors surrounding your metabolism and how your body uses nutrients. You can order a genetic test yourself and it’s as simple as sending in a saliva sample. No needles involved.
Your health is worth exploring fully—listen to your body, pay attention to its signals and keep a food journal to help spot any patterns that could be contributing to your symptoms then work with a trusted healthcare team to build a treatment plan. You’ll be feeling better in no time.
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