Contributed by- Dr Snehal Singh
Lactose intolerance is a commonly heard condition. But is it that common? Are milk allergy and lactose intolerance the same? Many such questions often come to our mind. Let us understand the signs of lactose intolerance and know the lactose intolerance foods to avoid.
What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is a condition in which some people are unable to tolerate foods or drinks containing lactose. Lactose is a form of sugar present in milk and milk products. These foods commonly include milk, butter, cheese, curd, ice cream, paneer. Some amount of lactose in milk is also present in biscuits, cakes, chocolates and desserts.
In lactose intolerance, people do not have enough of an enzyme called lactase, which is necessary to digest lactose present in milk and milk products. People who are intolerant to milk often face gastric problems and digestive issues after consuming such foods. It can affect children as well as adults. Lactose is also present in breast milk and formula milk.
However, there are many misconceptions about this condition, which often leads to unnecessary elimination of milk and milk products. These foods are rich in a variety of nutrients and must not be excluded unless it is necessary. Hence, the need to know the truth about lactose intolerance.
What causes lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance causes are mainly related to the inability to produce enough lactase enzyme, which is responsible for digestion of lactose in milk products. It can be:
- Primary lactose intolerance – This is possibly due to the genetic makeup of a person which results in reduced lactase production than normal.
- Secondary lactose intolerance – This occurs due to the presence of other existing condition that causes inflammation of the intestinal lining, thus affecting the digestion of lactose-rich foods. For example, chronic inflammatory conditions of the bowel, celiac disease, or worms.
Although rare, sometimes babies do not have the enzyme lactase at all since birth, which is due to a gene defect that runs in their families. This is called the developmental or congenital lactose intolerance.
What are the lactose intolerance symptoms?
Lactose intolerance is not the same as milk allergy, although they may show similar symptoms. Lactose intolerance being a digestive issue causes discomfort but can be managed. On the other hand, milk allergy is a reaction of the immune system and can also be life-threatening.
Lactose intolerance symptoms in adults commonly include diarrhoea, bloating and abdominal cramps after consuming foods containing lactose. Some may experience nausea and vomiting too. The nature of complaints and the intensity varies from person to person. The severity of symptoms also depends on the amount of consumption of lactose-rich food as against the person’s ability to digest it. Hence, the history of the symptoms and a proper evaluation is necessary.
Some of the commonest lactose intolerance symptoms in babies are loose stools, gas and stomach bloating after having milk. The babies often become cranky or cry excessively due to stomach pain and cramps. Some babies may also feel uneasy and vomit. Skin rash and frequent colds are noted sometimes.
How is lactose intolerance treated?
It is necessary to confirm the presence of lactose intolerance by consulting a doctor and undergoing the necessary investigations. The treatment is mainly based on the cause and severity of the condition. While the symptoms may need treatment with appropriate medicines, the main action would be to restrict foods containing lactose. However, as in most cases, people can digest some amount of lactose, controlling the amount of lactose intake can work well. For those with a more severe condition, restriction of lactose foods may be advised.
Lactose intolerance cure needs proper planning and execution, as this brings certain dietary restrictions. As a part of treatment, all milk and milk products have to be restricted or completely eliminated, as advised.
These products are mainly rich in calcium apart from other nutrients. It is necessary to keep the bones strong and maintain other body functions. So, it is necessary to include other calcium and nutrient-rich foods in the diet. For example, green leafy vegetables, broccoli and other green vegetables, beans, almonds, dried figs and fish. Calcium-fortified foods like juices, cereals, bread, tofu, oatmeal are also advised. Babies may be advised non-dairy milk like soy milk, almond or oat milk.
Treatment may also include the use of enzyme supplements and probiotics to improve digestion. Probiotics help to maintain the natural flora of the gut which helps better digestion and absorption of food. As lack of adequate calcium can increase the risk of osteoporosis and other bones problems, blood tests help to determine calcium and vitamin D levels are necessary. For some lactose intolerant people, if found deficient, calcium and vitamin D or other nutritional supplements may be considered.
Thus, it is clear that lactose intolerance can be uncomfortable for many, but it is not necessary to completely eliminate milk products. As it is possible to digest some amount of milk, it is better to seek medical advice and plan the right dietary restrictions.
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