Lactose is a sugar found in milk and milk products. Some people are unable to fully digest lactose because they lack the enzyme lactase. This disorder is commonly known as lactose intolerance, which can result in some uncomfortable symptoms.
“When people can’t break down that sugar, bacteria feed on it, which produces waste and causes gas, bloating and diarrhea,” said Karla Arrigoni, registered dietitian nutritionist for Marshfield Clinic Health System.
Results may vary
Arrigoni added that some people develop lactose intolerance in childhood, while others develop it later in life. It is also true that lactose intolerance falls on a spectrum. Some people cannot tolerate any lactose, while others can have a little without causing irritation. Still others have no sensitivity to it all.
Occurrence of lactose intolerance is higher in certain ethnic groups. According to Boston Children’s Hospital, “80% of all African-Americans and Native Americans are lactose intolerant. Over 90% of Asian-Americans are lactose intolerant, and it is least common among Americans with a Northern European heritage.” Arrigoni added that more clinical trials studying these findings are currently in progress.
Treating lactose intolerance symptoms
Lactose intolerance can cause a great deal of discomfort, but it is not fatal. According to an article published by the University of Indiana Department of Biology, “recent studies have shown that the symptoms of lactose intolerance can be relieved in some people by changing the population of their intestinal microbes, called the microbiome, to encourage lactose-digesting bacteria. Specifically, bacteria, called ‘lactic acid bacteria,’ eat the lactose but produce the byproduct lactic acid instead of gas. While lactic acid has no nutritional value, it does not produce the unpleasant symptoms of lactose intolerance.”
Another option for those who are lactose intolerant is to take a lactase enzyme in pill form before eating something with lactose.
“Then that enzyme is in your system to break it down for you,” Arrigoni said.
Dairy products provide us with protein and calcium. Those with lactose intolerance need to find those nutritional elements in other places.
“You can find dairy-free cheese or yogurt,” Arrigoni said. “Most of the dairy-milk alternatives like almond or oat milk are also fortified with calcium, though they may not have as much protein.”
There also are some dairy foods that may be tolerated better than others. Cheese and cottage cheese are low lactose. Yogurt is higher in lactose, but is often tolerated because it contains probiotics that can help break down the lactose.
However, Arrigoni said there are no universal rules for what people may tolerate. Each person is different in what they can consume. She added that she hears most often from patients that milk and ice cream are the most difficult foods to tolerate.
If you have concerns about your lactose tolerance, talk with your provider.