Understanding Lactose Intolerance
IT HAS been nearly an hour since you finished savoring your favorite ice cream or cheese. Your stomach feels tight and irritated, and you have gas. You once again seek relief from a medication that you have begun to keep handy. You are now at the point where you ask yourself, ‘Why is my stomach so sensitive?’
If you suffer from nausea, cramps, bloating, gas, or diarrhea after drinking milk or eating dairy products, you may be lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is a common reaction to dairy products. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases reports that “between 30 and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant.” According to The Sensitive Gut, a book published by Harvard Medical School, it has been estimated that “up to 70 percent of the world’s population has some sort of problem with lactose.” So, what is lactose intolerance?
Lactose is the sugar found in milk. The small intestine produces an enzyme called lactase. Its job is to break lactose down into two simpler sugars called glucose and galactose. This allows the glucose to be absorbed into the bloodstream. If there is not enough lactase to perform this task, the unaltered lactose passes into the large intestine and begins to ferment, producing acids and gases.
This condition, called lactose intolerance, results in some or all of the symptoms mentioned above. Lactase is produced in high quantities during the first two years of life, after which there is a steady decline in its production. Hence, many may develop this condition and not realize it.
Is It an Allergy?
Some conclude that they are allergic to milk because of the reactions they suffer after consuming a dairy product. So which is it, an allergy* or an intolerance? According to some allergy experts, true food allergies are rare, with only 1 to 2 percent of the general population affected. In children, this figure is higher but less than 8 percent. Though the symptoms of an allergy and of lactose intolerance can be similar, there are differences.
The symptoms of a food allergy are the result of the immune system providing a defense—histamine—against something you have been eating or drinking. Some symptoms involve the swelling of the lips or tongue, hives (rash), or asthma. Lactose intolerance will not cause these symptoms because the immune system is not involved. Lactose intolerance involves the body’s inability to assimilate a food properly, thus resulting in a reaction.
What can help you tell the difference? The book The Sensitive Gut answers: “Genuine allergic reactions . . . occur within minutes of ingesting an offending food. Symptoms that arise more than an hour later most likely indicate an intolerance.”
The Effect on Infants
When an infant or a young child suffers a reaction from drinking milk, it can be distressing to the child as well as to the parents. If a child develops diarrhea, dehydration could result. It may be wise for parents to seek the advice of a pediatrician. When intolerance is diagnosed, some doctors have recommended changing from milk to a supplement. The result for many has been relief from the distressing symptoms.
In the case of an allergy, there is more concern. Some doctors provide an antihistamine. However, if breathing is restricted, more will need to be done by a doctor to alleviate the situation. In rare cases, a potentially fatal condition called anaphylaxis can occur.
If an infant begins vomiting, another concern is a rare condition called galactosemia. As mentioned earlier, the galactose is separated by lactase, but galactose needs to be converted into glucose. If an accumulation of galactose occurs, severe liver damage, kidney deformity, mental retardation, hypoglycemia, and even cataracts can result. Hence, early and complete elimination of lactose from the infant’s diet is vital.
How Serious Is Lactose Intolerance?
One young woman had been suffering from chronic symptoms of gas and stomach cramps. Her condition became so severe that she sought medical attention. After a series of tests, she was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).* To control this disease, medication was prescribed. However, she did not stop her daily routine of consuming dairy products, so her symptoms remained. After doing personal research, she realized that her diet might be the culprit, so she systematically began to avoid certain foods. Eventually, she eliminated dairy products, and her symptoms began to disappear! Within a year—and after she had more tests—her doctor told her that she did not have IBD. She was lactose intolerant. You can imagine her relief!
At this time, there is no treatment that can promote the production of lactase in the human body. However, lactose intolerance has not been found to be life threatening. So, what can you do to cope with the symptoms of lactose intolerance?
Through trial and error, some have learned how much dairy products they can tolerate. By being observant of the amount of dairy products being consumed and your body’s reaction, you may determine how much you can and cannot digest.
Some have chosen to forgo dairy products altogether. By doing personal research or consulting a dietitian, some have found other ways to supplement their calcium needs. Certain green vegetables and some kinds of fish and nuts are high in calcium.
For those who want to continue enjoying dairy products, there are items on the market in the form of pills or liquid that can help. These products contain lactase to assist the intestines in converting lactose. Taking these products can help a person avoid the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
In today’s world, managing one’s health is a challenge. But thanks to medical research and our body’s resilience, we are able to cope until the time comes when “no resident will say: ‘I am sick.’”—Isaiah 33:24; Psalm 139:14.
Also called hypersensitivity.
There are two types of IBD—Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These very serious diseases can lead to the removal of a portion of the intestines. Complications from IBD can prove fatal.
[Box/Pictures on page 26]
THESE MAY ALSO CONTAIN LACTOSE:
◼ Bread and bread products
◼ Cakes and cookies
◼ Instant potatoes
◼ Many prescription drugs
◼ Over-the-counter medicines
◼ Mixes for pancakes, biscuits, and cookies
◼ Processed breakfast cereals
◼ Salad dressings
◼ Lunch meats