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Lactose Intolerance Symptoms: Signs to Pay Attention To

Milk and dairy products can be delicious and healthy, but for people who have a lactose intolerance, a glass of milk can lead to uncomfortable symptoms. The symptoms of lactose intolerance can vary greatly depending on its severity. Let’s talk about how to tell if you are lactose intolerant.

Cow’s milk contains lactose, which is a type of sugar. Other types of milk, such as goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and even breast milk also contain this sugar. People with lactose intolerance — also called lactose malabsorption — can’t digest lactose properly. Usually, lactose intolerance is caused by insufficient lactase production, which is the enzyme responsible for digesting lactose. This enzyme is produced in your small intestine.

Many people produce low levels of lactase, but they can still digest milk and dairy products. In most cases, the symptoms of lactose intolerance are uncomfortable but can be managed without completely avoiding milk and dairy.

In most cases, the signs of lactose intolerance begin between 30 minutes and 2 hours after eating or drinking milk or dairy products. Common dairy intolerance symptoms include:

The severity of these symptoms can vary depending on how much lactose you consume and whether your body produces any lactase at all. Some people only experience symptoms after consuming a large amount of lactose, while others feel bad after eating any amount of milk or dairy.

The symptoms of a dairy allergy aren’t the same as the symptoms of lactose intolerance, although some people use these terms interchangeably. Dairy allergies cause your immune system to have an exaggerated response to dairy products, which can be life-threatening. Common symptoms of a dairy allergy include:

  • Skin rash
  • Hives
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Swollen eyes, lips, tongue, or throat
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Nasal congestion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Anaphylactic shock

Under normal circumstances, lactase breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose, which can be easily absorbed into your bloodstream. But if you have a lactose intolerance, undigested lactose will reach your colon, where it will interact with bacteria and cause uncomfortable symptoms.

There are three different types of lactose intolerance.

Primary lactose intolerance is the most common form of this condition. Babies tend to produce lactase in large quantities to be able to digest breast milk properly. This lactase production starts to decline as children start to eat solid foods. This is usually after the age of two, when breastfeeding or bottlefeeding has stopped; however, the symptoms of primary lactose intolerance may not be noticeable until adulthood.

This type of lactose intolerance is caused by genetic factors, and it’s more frequent among African, Asian, Mediterranean, Southern European, and Hispanic populations.

You can develop a secondary lactose intolerance, even after reaching adulthood. This form of intolerance develops after an injury, surgical procedure, or disease causes a significant decrease in your lactase production. In some cases, treating the underlying condition can improve your lactase production.

Common causes of secondary lactose intolerance include:

  • Celiac disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Bacterial overgrowth or infections
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Chemotherapy
  • Prolonged courses of antibiotics

In rare cases, babies can’t produce lactase from birth. This is an autosomal recessive genetic disorder, which means that both parents must pass this genetic variant on for the baby to be affected by this type of lactose intolerance.

It’s also possible for premature babies to suffer from lactose intolerance due to immaturity.

Dairy contains many nutrients that are essential for human health, such as calcium and vitamins A, B12, and D. The lactose in milk also helps your body absorb other nutrients, such as zinc and magnesium. These minerals and vitamins help keep your bones strong and regulate other processes in your body.

Being unable to consume enough milk or dairy may lead to dietary insufficiencies and several health problems. Common complications resulting from lactose intolerance include:

  • Osteopenia — This condition occurs when your bone density is lower than normal, but it’s not low enough to be considered osteoporosis. Untreated osteopenia can develop into osteoporosis over time.
  • Osteoporosis — People with osteoporosis have weak, brittle, porous bones that are more prone to breaking. In some cases, people with osteoporosis don’t experience any symptoms until they experience their first fracture.
  • Malnutrition — This condition develops when your diet doesn’t contain enough nutrients to keep you healthy, and it’s not necessarily associated with low body weight. Malnutrition can lead to numerous health issues, such as poor wound healing, chronic fatigue, poor immune function, reduced muscle mass, and poor mobility, among many others.

There’s no way to fix your body’s insufficient lactase production, but you can still alleviate the symptoms of lactose intolerance. With trial and error, you may be able to identify just how much dairy you can consume without experiencing symptoms. In many cases, people with lactose intolerance can consume small servings of dairy products regularly.

Some dairy products are naturally low in lactase, while others have lactase added to them to make them suitable for people with lactose intolerance, such as “lactose-free” milk. Natural low-lactose foods include:

  • Butter
  • Hard, aged cheeses
  • Probiotic yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Heavy cream

You can also try substituting cow’s milk for lactose-free alternatives, such as soy or nut milks or yogurts. There are also supplements and pills that contain lactase and can be taken before you consume lactose, but it’s important to ask your doctor before taking any type of medication. Your doctor may also recommend taking calcium and vitamin D supplements to avoid dietary deficiencies.

Lactose intolerance is characterized by experiencing uncomfortable digestive symptoms shortly after consuming dairy. This condition can be cumbersome, but it doesn’t have to affect your everyday life excessively. 

Many people with lactose intolerance can still consume small amounts of milk or dairy products, whereas others prefer to take lactase supplements or low-lactose alternatives. It’s important to discuss these alternatives with your doctor, as well as about taking vitamin and mineral supplements to avoid developing dietary deficiencies.





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