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6 signs and symptoms that mean you may suffer from lactose intolerance

by Dominique Vanier, B.Sc.H., M.Env.Sc., on 24 October 2016, Allergies, Digestion
lactose intolerance

Lactose is a naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products. It is the compound that gives milk its mild sweetness and flavour.

And, perhaps a lesser-known fact, lactose is also the cause of digestive unrest, gas, bloating, and diarrhea for more than 7 million Canadians.

Intolerance to lactose occurs when an individual lacks or is deficient in the digestive enzyme lactase, which is normally found in the small intestine. The role of lactase is to break down lactose to allow for its full absorption in the small intestine.

When lactase is deficient or absent, unabsorbed lactose is pushed into the large intestine. There, the unabsorbed sugars are fermented by colonic bacteria and osmotically draw fluid into the large intestine. The end result is production of gases leading to digestive symptoms including cramping, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.

Luckily, being lactose intolerant is harmless, however it does result in discomfort, and experiencing an episode is not exactly an ideal situation in social or work environments.

How do you know whether you suffer from lactose intolerance?

Here are 6 signs and symptoms that may mean you are experiencing lactose malabsorption:

  • Digestive upset within 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating a dairy product. Dairy products include milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and butter. However, dairy can also be hidden in “non”-dairy products like salad dressing, shellfish, and deli meats.
  • Gas and bloating.
  • Diarrhea or loose stools.
  • Abdominal pain and cramps.
  • Nausea and/or
  • Positive hydrogen breath test. The fermentation that occurs when lactose is not absorbed properly results in the release of abnormally high levels of hydrogen. This hydrogen is exhaled during respiration, and results in high levels on the breath. If you think you may be intolerant to lactose, ask your primary health care provider about the hydrogen breath test.

Lifestyle and nutrition changes

The good news is that avoiding lactose is simpler than ever. Thanks to modern-day food technologies and increased awareness of food sensitivities, many alternative options exist that don’t sacrifice food taste. Below are some lifestyle and nutrition changes that can be made to avoid lactose:

  • Use lactose-free dairy products. If you suffer from a true lactose intolerance, rather than non-specific digestive problems, using lactose-free products should technically reduce or eliminate digestive distress. Lactose-free products are essentially “pre-digested” in that they include the lactase enzyme, allowing for full digestion of the milk sugar.
  • Try dairy substitutes. Several dairy substitutes are available in grocery stores, including almond, coconut, and cashew milk. Cheese substitutes that are dairy-, gluten-, and soy-free cheese are also sold in most grocery stores.
  • Be educated in choosing dairy. Certain dairy products have more lactose than others. Fluid milks, for example, have the highest percentage of lactose, whereas some cheeses including hard Parmesan and natural aged cheese contain very little lactose and may be tolerated by those who have a mild lactose sensitivity. Choosing organic fermented dairy such as kefir may can help improve the digestibility of lactose, as well as its healthy fats and protein.
  • Try probiotics. Digestive problems may mask themselves as a simple lactose intolerance, when the issue may actually be related to a variety of foods causing complex inappropriate immune reactions. While some studies support the use of probiotics in helping alleviate intolerance symptoms after lactose ingestion, there is a large body of research supporting the use of probiotics in helping alleviate irritable bowel syndrome symptoms – symptoms that often include an intolerance to lactose (as well as many other foods).
  • Experience the benefits of Molkosan. Molkosan is a tasty concentrated lacto-fermented whey beverage that can be added to your water, smoothies, or tea. It is a source of lactic acid and potassium and acts a prebiotic to your intestinal friendly bacteria, which makes them perform their job better. Since some bacteria in the gut produce their own lactase enzyme, allowing them to flourish may help you digest lactose and reduce intolerance symptoms.

American Family Physician: Lactose Intolerance. http://www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0501/p1845.html
Canadian Digestive Health Foundation. http://cdhf.ca/en/disorders/lactose-intolerance/section/overview
Healthline: What causes lactose intolerance? 4 Possible Conditions. http://www.healthline.com/symptom/lactose-intolerance
Merck Manual: Lactose Intolerance http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/digestive-disorders/malabsorption/lactose-intolerance
WebMD. Supplements for IBS – What Works? http://www.webmd.com/ibs/features/supplements-for-ibs-what-works

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