Lactose intolerance occurs when the body of an individual becomes incapable of digesting lactose (natural sugar in milk). It is more common in adults than children. Lactose intolerance occurs due to less formation of the enzyme lactase (which helps in the digestion of lactose) in small intestine, thus results in lactose indigestion. This disorder leads to various unpleasant symptoms like stomach pain, flatulence and bloating. There is no definite medicine to combat the disorder, but one can stay away from such problem by limiting the intake of dairy products. Our expert Dr Neha Sanwalka, nutritionist and dietician, tells us more about this condition.
Lactose intolerance is a condition where the body cannot digest lactose, a carbohydrate (sugar) found in milk. The enzyme called lactase which is present in the small intestine is responsible for breaking down lactose in smaller sugar units glucose and galactose. But, when the body does not produce enough of this enzyme (deficiency of lactase) or due to reduced activity of the enzyme, the body is unable to digest lactose resulting in lactose intolerance.
As lactase enzyme is produced mainly in the small intestine, injury or illness of the organ also causes reduced secretion of this enzyme in the body leading to lactose intolerance. The common problems of the small intestine that increase your risk of lactose intolerance are –
- Surgery of the intestine
- Infections of the small intestine
- Diseases such as Crohn’s disease and celiac spruce
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The undigested lactose gets broken up by bacteria in the large intestine leading to various signs and symptoms. The most common symptom of lactose intolerance is diarrhoea followed by–
- Abdominal bloating
- Abdominal distension
- Abdominal pain
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According to Dr Neha, ‘The first step to diagnose lactose intolerance is through elimination diet. In this, the person susceptible to lactose intolerance has to eliminate all milk and milk products from the diet. If the symptoms subside than the person might be suffering from lactose intolerance and if the symptoms tend to elevate, lactose intolerance can be suspected.’
In such cases, this condition can be confirmed with the help of pathological tests in a laboratory. The various diagnostic tests commonly used are -
Lactose tolerance test: This is a blood test that checks the blood levels of glucose, which is produced when lactose (present in milk) is broken down. To do this test, several samples of blood are drawn from a vein before and after you consume a glass of milk.
Hydrogen breath test: It is an invasive test that detects the amount of hydrogen present in air (exhaling) after consuming milk. You will be asked to breath before drinking milk and then samples are taken after fixed intervals to determine hydrogen levels in your breath. If you are lactose intolerant, breath levels of hydrogen will be high as compared to normal levels.
Stool acidity: Usually, this test is performed to detect lactose intolerance in very young children and infants. If a person is lactose intolerant, he is unable to digest milk. The lactose present in milk is absorbed in the small intestine and reaches the colon. The stool becomes acidic due to the action of bacteria present in the colon. Hence, people with lactose intolerance have acidic stool.
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There is no cure for lactose intolerance. A lactose intolerant person has to reduce the quantity or abstain from consuming milk and milk products for the rest of their life. Dr Neha says, ‘Now-a-days, lactase enzyme is available in forms of capsules and tablets which can be taken with milk and milk containing products to aid digestion. However, it should be taken only through prescription and after consultation with a doctor.’ She further adds ‘You can reduce your intake and watch for symptoms to reduce. In some cases you have to stop it for some time, and slowing reintroduce it into your diet.
Apart from this, people who are lactose intolerant can opt for whey water and other such alternatives. They might not be able to digest milk but depending on the level of their intolerance, they can digest a few dairy products like yoghurt or cheese.
Milk is packed with numerous essential nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, protein and riboflavin which are required for bodily functions. And restricting your intake of milk and milk products might lead to deficiency of these nutrients. This is the reason, why you should attain these nutrients from other dietary sources to fulfil your daily recommended allowance and prevent complications due to deficiency of vitamins and minerals.
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Lactose intolerance usually occurs due to genetic defect or reduced activity of the enzyme lactase with age. This is the main reason, why there is no way to prevent lactose intolerance. However, if you are lactose intolerant, the only way to prevent the symptoms is to restrict intake of foods containing lactose (milk and milk products).
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The content has been verified by
Dr Neha Sanwalka
, nutritionist and dietician.