Ms. C has long noticed she develops some abdominal discomfort after enjoying a lot of dairy. Recently her doctor told her she may be lactose intolerant. Ms. C is now concerned about this presumptive diagnosis and wonders what it means for her.
Lactose intolerance is very common, with estimates that over 80% of Native, Asian and African Americans, and a lesser number of caucasians, experience the loose stools, gas, nausea, bloating and cramping a short time after eating dairy products that is typical of this disorder. Many people with lactose intolerance incorrectly believe they are allergic to dairy products, but lactose intolerance is not representative of an allergy. Rather, it is a lack of the enzyme lactase, which is required to break down the sugar lactose common to dairy products, that is the culprit. The disorder typically develops early in life, somewhere after age 3-5 years, but can also develop in adulthood after infection or injury to the small intestines.
The symptoms of lactose intolerance are similar to those seen with other gastrointestinal disorders, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), so it’s prudent to make an appointment with your doctor if you’re experiencing abdominal discomfort of any kind. There are a number of tests that your doctor can order to firmly establish the diagnosis of lactose intolerance. Still, one of the best ways to test for lactose intolerance after discussing symptoms with your doctor is to remove dairy products from your diet for perhaps 3 weeks. This is not easy, but you’ll only be doing without for these 3 weeks. Each day maintain a symptom diary of how you’re feeling, presence or absence of abdominal, etc. At the end of the 3 weeks, re-introduce dairy products into your diet and see if there’s a difference. If symptoms return you may be lactose intolerant.
The good news is that lactose intolerance is more a nuisance than a danger. Most people with the disorder can enjoy small amounts of dairy without discomfort. Others use over-the-counter remedies that actually contain the enzyme lactase to help them enjoy dairy foods. Probiotics, like acidophilus, may be of benefit, but a more tasty way to explore probiotic therapy in association with dairy foods is to enjoy a little low-sugar yogurt or kefir whose label states the product contains live organisms. The bacteria you ingest in this way contain the enzyme lactase which is released into your digestive tract during digestion, thereby permitting some lactose to be broken down and absorbed with, hopefully, less abdominal discomfort. Still others do better by avoiding dairy foods altogether, some opting for soy products. Be sure to get adequate calcium from other sources, such a leafy green vegetables and fortified foods, if you take dairy out of your diet.
I hope this is of help, Ms. C, and that you will be well.
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