Lactose Intolerant? How to Eat Dairy Without Suffering

Milk and dairy products are often touted as some of nature’s perfect foods. They’re full of calcium, great for bone and teeth health, protein for muscle strength, B vitamins for energy, and fortified with Vitamin D for healthy bones and immune systemBut many of my patients, and about 50 million other Americans, have a problem with lactose-a component of dairy.

Lactose is the sugar that is contained in milk and other dairy products, which, in sensitive individuals, causes painful gas, bloating, cramping and often diarrhea. If you suffer from lactose intolerance, I’d like to share some solutions to the condition, which will allow you to consume dairy products if you so desire.

What Causes Lactose Intolerance?

As I mentioned earlier, there are many Americans who are lactose intolerant.  For some unknown reason, about 90% of Asians, 75% of African-Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and Mexican-Americans are born with a lack, or decreased amounts of the lactase enzyme that breaks down lactose.  However, other ethnic groups can also develop the condition later in life due to aging when many digestive enzymes decrease their strength to digest foods.

Without sufficient lactase to break down the proteins in dairy, the gut “gripes”, i.e., it swells, cramps, and causes pain and bloating.  Even illnesses like diverticular disease, inflammatory bowel conditions, or intestinal surgery can trigger a temporary deficiency in lactase with symptoms.  Also, people can experience different levels of lactose intolerance depending on the amount of dairy they consume. You might be able to tolerate cream in your coffee but not a melted cheese sandwich.

How do you know if you are lactose intolerant? Well, besides the uncomfortable symptoms (see above) that occur, you can also have a breath hydrogen level test which measures the amount of hydrogen on your breath – people with lactose intolerance exhale more hydrogen gas.

If you are lactose intolerant, you might be wondering if you’re doomed to lead a life devoid of pizza and ice cream cones.  No, not at all!  First, it’s important to determine that your symptoms from eating dairy are truly lactose intolerance and not an allergy.

An allergy to dairy products involves your immune system being sensitive to the specific proteins in milk. The allergy usually shows up in early childhood and very often a person outgrows it. In a dairy allergy, your immune system reacts to the proteins in milk as intruders and produces antibodies that try to get rid of them. Symptoms vary from runny nose, puffy eyes, and rash to more severe vomiting, swelling throat, or difficulty breathing.  If you get symptoms like this when you eat dairy, you have an allergy, not lactose intolerance.   People with dairy allergy need to steer clear of all dairy, all the time.

How To Live With Lactose Intolerance

The good news about lactose intolerance is that about 80% of people who have it are still able to eat dairy to some degree. Here are some helpful hints that will help you deal with your lactose intolerance better:

  • Consume your dairy with other food.  A glass of milk or piece of cheese taken with other food allows your body more time to digest the lactose.  A small snack of dairy and another food throughout the day may be more easily tolerated than consuming a large amount all at once. It may also help stimulate more of your natural lactase enzyme.
  • Consume yogurt. Yogurt with live cultures may help digest the lactose in it. Many people who get symptoms with regular milk or cheese often do not with yogurt.
  • Add lactase enzymes.  There are drops that you add to your milk about 24 hours in advance of drinking it. These enzymes digest the lactose in the milk so by the time you drink it, they’re neutralized. There are also chewable lactase enzymes that you can take each time you eat. These are found in most pharmacies as over-the-counter caps or tablets.  Also found in health food stores in capsules as Lactobacillus strains (acidophilus, bulgaricus, reuteri, plantarium) and Streptococcus strains, salivarius and thermophilus.
  • Try lactose-reduced milk. Most grocery stores carry this type of milk where the lactose has already been pre-digested so you can drink worry-free. They cost a little more than regular milk, but add important calcium and other nutrients to your diet.
  • Check your prescriptions. Sometimes lactose is a “filler” agent in some medications. Be sure to ask your pharmacist if your prescription contains lactose.
  • Check labels. Many prepared foods contain dairy like milk or cheese. Buttermilk and acidophilus milk are not lactose-free. However, acidophilus milk, because of its live cultures, like yogurt, may be better tolerated without symptoms.

I feel for my patients who have lactose intolerance, as it can be a frustrating and annoying condition to live with, its symptoms varying in occurrence and intensity from when or how much dairy they eat.  I feel the recommendations noted here can be a big help in living peacefully with the condition.

As I mentioned earlier, most dairy allergies show up in children, but if you persistently have some of the symptoms noted above, you may have a true dairy allergy that should be addressed by a doctor.  Lactose intolerance, on the other hand, can be treated successfully and you can safely enjoy adding dairy to your diet and reap all the health benefits it offers without any gripes!

Photo Credit: cbfoods.com

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