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Lactose intolerance - What you need to know

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Lactose is a type of sugar that is found in milk and other dairy products. It is a disaccharide, which means that it is made up of two smaller sugars, glucose and galactose, bonded together. Lactose is the primary source of energy for infants and young children, and it is also an important source of nutrients, including calcium, protein, and other minerals.

Lactose is not naturally present in the human body, but it is produced by mammals, including cows, goats, and humans, to nourish their young. In humans, lactose is produced by the mammary glands and is present in breast milk.

Lactose is broken down in the small intestine by an enzyme called lactase, which splits it into its two component sugars, glucose and galactose. These sugars are then absorbed into the bloodstream and used for energy. Some people have difficulty digesting lactose because their bodies do not produce enough lactase, a condition known as lactose intolerance.

What does it mean to be lactose intolerant?

Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder that occurs when the body is unable to fully digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. People with lactose intolerance are unable to produce enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down lactose in the small intestine. As a result, lactose passes undigested into the large intestine, where it is fermented by bacteria and can cause a range of symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and nausea.

Lactose intolerance is a common condition, particularly among people of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American ancestry. It can occur at any age, but is more common in adults than in children. Some people with lactose intolerance are able to tolerate small amounts of lactose without experiencing symptoms, while others may need to eliminate lactose completely from their diet. There are several treatments available to help people with lactose intolerance manage their condition, including lactose-free milk, lactase supplements, and diet modifications.

What are the 4 types of lactose intolerance?

There are four main types of lactose intolerance: primary, secondary, developmental, and congenital.

  1. Primary lactose intolerance is the most common type and occurs when the body naturally produces less lactase as it gets older. This type of lactose intolerance usually develops gradually and becomes more severe over time. It is most common in people of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American ancestry.

  2. Secondary lactose intolerance occurs when the small intestine is damaged or inflamed, for example, as a result of an infection, surgery, or other medical condition. This type of lactose intolerance is often temporary and disappears once the underlying condition has been treated.

  3. Developmental lactose intolerance occurs in newborns and infants who are born premature or have a low birth weight. This type of lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency in lactase production and is usually temporary, resolving as the baby grows and develops.

  4. Congenital lactose intolerance is a rare, inherited condition that is present from birth. It occurs when a person is born with an inability to produce lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose. This type of lactose intolerance is usually severe and requires a strict lactose-free diet.

It's important to note that lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy, which is an immune reaction to proteins found in milk. A milk allergy can cause more severe symptoms, such as hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing, and requires immediate medical attention.

Can you suddenly become lactose intolerant?

It is possible to develop lactose intolerance at any age, although it is most common in adults. Lactose intolerance can occur suddenly, although it is usually a gradual process that becomes more severe over time.

Primary lactose intolerance, the most common type, occurs when the body naturally produces less lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose, as it gets older. This type of lactose intolerance usually develops gradually and becomes more severe over time. It is most common in people of African, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American ancestry.

Secondary lactose intolerance, on the other hand, can occur suddenly and is often temporary. It occurs when the small intestine is damaged or inflamed, for example, as a result of an infection, surgery, or other medical condition. This type of lactose intolerance usually disappears once the underlying condition has been treated.

It's important to note that lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy, which is an immune reaction to proteins found in milk. A milk allergy can cause more severe symptoms, such as hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing, and requires immediate medical attention.

How do you fix lactose intolerance?

There is no cure for lactose intolerance, but there are several treatments that can help people manage their condition and reduce symptoms. The most effective treatment for lactose intolerance is a lactose-free or low-lactose diet. This involves eliminating or reducing the amount of lactose-containing foods and drinks in your diet.

Here are some tips for following a lactose-free or low-lactose diet:

  1. Choose lactose-free or lactose-reduced milk and other dairy products, such as hard cheeses, which contain very little lactose.

  2. Try lactase supplements, which contain the enzyme needed to break down lactose. These supplements can be taken before consuming lactose-containing foods and drinks to help reduce symptoms.

  3. Eat small amounts of lactose-containing foods and drinks, and gradually increase the amount you consume over time to see how much your body can tolerate.

  4. Choose non-dairy alternatives to milk and other dairy products, such as almond milk, coconut milk, and soy milk, which are naturally lactose-free.

  5. Read labels carefully and avoid foods and drinks that contain lactose or milk products.

It's important to work with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian to develop a treatment plan that is right for you. They can help you identify the foods and drinks that trigger your symptoms and suggest alternatives that fit your needs and lifestyle.

What are the warning signs of lactose intolerance?

The symptoms of lactose intolerance can vary widely from person to person, but the most common warning signs include:

  1. Abdominal pain: Lactose intolerance can cause abdominal pain, cramps, and bloating.

  2. Diarrhea: Undigested lactose in the large intestine can cause diarrhea.

  3. Gas: Fermentation of lactose in the large intestine by bacteria can produce gas, which can cause bloating and flatulence.

  4. Nausea: Lactose intolerance can cause feelings of nausea and an urge to vomit.

  5. Stomach rumbling: Undigested lactose in the large intestine can cause the stomach to make loud rumbling noises.

  6. Stool changes: Lactose intolerance can cause changes in the frequency, consistency, and odor of stools.

These symptoms typically appear within 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming a lactose-containing food or drink. The severity of the symptoms can depend on the amount of lactose consumed and the individual's level of lactase enzyme production.

It's important to note that lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy, which is an immune reaction to proteins found in milk. A milk allergy can cause more severe symptoms, such as hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing, and requires immediate medical attention. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have a milk allergy, it's important to see a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

What lactose intolerance is worst?

It's difficult to determine which type of lactose intolerance is "worst" as the severity of symptoms can vary widely from person to person. Some people with lactose intolerance may only have mild symptoms that can be easily managed with diet modifications, while others may experience more severe symptoms that significantly impact their quality of life.