Are You Lactose Intolerant?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN MEXICO
“My husband and I were visiting some friends in the state of Puebla, in Mexico. Our hosts had their own cows, so they offered us fresh milk along with breakfast and supper.
“The first night we felt bad, but the second day was terrible. My stomach became so bloated that I looked as if I were several months pregnant. Then both of us developed severe diarrhea.
“It was not until years later that we found out that we are lactose intolerant.”—Bertha.
BERTHA’S experience is not rare, for some estimate that as much as 75 percent of the world’s adult population may experience some or all of the symptoms of lactose intolerance.a Just what is this condition, and what causes it? Most important, what can be done to cope with it?
The term “lactose intolerance” refers to the body’s inability to digest lactose, the predominant sugar in milk. To be absorbed into the bloodstream, lactose must be broken down into glucose and galactose. For this to take place, an enzyme called lactase is needed. The problem is that after infancy the body produces less lactase. Having a deficiency of lactase, many adults become lactose intolerant.
When a person ingests more lactose—in milk and its derivatives—than he can digest, bacteria in the colon convert it into lactic acid and carbon dioxide. Within as little as 30 minutes, typical symptoms set in, including nausea, cramps, bloating, and diarrhea. Some who are not aware that they are lactose intolerant may try to soothe the stomach with more milk, thereby only aggravating the problem.
The degree of lactose tolerance varies from one person to the next. Some can drink a small glass of milk without experiencing any adverse effects. For others, even this modest amount will bring on symptoms. Some suggest that to determine how much you can tolerate, you should start out with a small glass of milk. Then gradually increase the amount you drink on subsequent occasions. In this regard, remember that while the symptoms of lactose intolerance are uncomfortable, they are rarely dangerous.
What to Eat and What to Avoid
If you suffer from lactose intolerance, you need to determine what you can and cannot eat. Much will depend upon your tolerance level. Foods that contain lactose include milk, ice cream, yogurt, butter, and cheeses. Some prepared foods, such as cakes, cereals, and salad dressings, might also contain lactose. Therefore, people with lactose intolerance should check the nutrition label on such products.
Of course, milk is a prime source of calcium, and insufficient calcium intake can lead to the development of osteoporosis. Hence, those who are lactose intolerant should look for other sources of calcium. Some fresh vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and spinach, contain calcium. So do almonds, sesame seeds, and soft-boned fish, like sardines and salmon.
Even if you are lactose intolerant, you may not have to eliminate milk and dairy products altogether. Instead, try to determine how much you can tolerate, and then consume no more than that amount. When possible, eat other foods along with any products containing lactose. Remember, too, that aged cheeses contain less lactose, and it may be that they will not cause a problem. What about yogurt? It has almost as much lactose as milk, but some people with lactose intolerance can digest it with ease. Why? Because yogurt has microorganisms that synthesize lactase, and this aids the digestion of lactose.
So if you suffer from lactose intolerance, do not worry. As we have seen, knowledge about this ailment will allow you to control it easily. But keep the following points in mind:
(1) Consume small amounts of milk and dairy products, along with other foods, to determine your degree of tolerance.
(2) Eat yogurt and aged cheeses, which are usually more easily digested.
(3) Make use of any available products that are lactose free or that contain lactase.
By following these suggestions, you can cope with lactose intolerance.
a Lactose intolerance affects more Asians than any other group. Those of northern European descent are least affected.
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Diagnosing Lactose Intolerance
Several methods are used to detect lactose intolerance.
Lactose tolerance test: After fasting, the patient drinks a liquid containing lactose. Blood samples are taken to determine how well the lactose is being digested.
Hydrogen breath test: Undigested lactose produces various gases, including hydrogen. This passes from the intestines into the bloodstream and then into the lungs, after which it is exhaled.
Stool acidity test: Undigested lactose in the colon produces acids that can be detected in a stool sample.
These tests are usually performed on an outpatient basis.