Have you ever felt excessive flatulence, bloating or even diarrhea after consuming milk? If yes, then you are certainly lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is extremely common and around 75% of the world’s population is suffering from a similar issue. However, this problem is not very prevalent among children aged under five as lactose is also present in breast milk and almost everybody can digest it.
People suffering from the problem have difficulty in consuming any dairy product. This in turn creates a negative impact on their lives as approximately 50 % of the food products cannot be consumed by them. So first things first, let us understand what lactose intolerance is.
What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose is the main carbohydrate of dairy products and it is made up of two sugars of one molecule each. These sugars are called glucose and galactose. Now, lactose is needed to be broken down into these two sugars, so they can swiftly flow into the bloodstream. This process of breaking down is done by lactase enzyme which is naturally produced by the body.
People suffering from lactose intolerance do not produce enough amounts of lactase enzyme and that is why lactose is not digested by your body. With your body not digesting lactose, you experience some digestive symptoms.
What are the causes of lactose intolerance?
The cause of lactose intolerance can be divided into two types: primary and secondary lactose intolerance.
1. Primary lactose intolerance:
Primary lactose intolerance is one of the most common causes. It is caused by the decreased production of lactase with the advancement of age. With the decrease in the production of lactase, lactose remains undigested in the body which gives rise to lactose intolerance symptoms.
2. Secondary lactose:
Secondary lactose intolerance is caused by some illnesses such as celiac disease, where your intestine is hypersensitive to gluten. The presence of a stomach bug can also turn person lactose intolerant. Under such circumstances, the walls of your gut are inflamed, which leads the production of the lactase enzyme to go downhill.
Food products that contain lactose
Almost all dairy products contain lactose. If you are lactose intolerant, you might want to avoid all of them. They are:
Apart from these, there are also other kinds of food products that contain lactose in them such as cookies, chocolates, candies, potato chips, desserts and instant soups. Being lactose intolerant means taking all the sweetness out of your food sometimes.
What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?
Excessive bloating is caused by the mixture of water and gas in the colon which leads to the expansion of the guts. As mentioned earlier, due to insufficient production of lactase, lactose is not digested enough.
So, the undigested lactose passes through the intestine and reaches the colon. Here, unable to be penetrated through the walls of the colon, the bacteria called microflora, ferments and breaks down the carbohydrate. This galvanizes the process of fatty acid production, which releases gases such as hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide.
As this entire process happens in your colon, you will feel pain or cramps in your lower tummy and even some amount of bloating. If the process continues for a longer period, then it might also result in nausea and vomiting.
As mentioned above, when lactose is left undigested in the colon, the microflora presents a fatty acid chain reaction, which leads to the formulation of gases. However, during this process, the acids are absorbed back by the walls of the colon. Nevertheless, not all acids are absorbed, some are left.
The left-over acids increase the volume of water in the colon. More water in the colon means more stool. Normally, this situation arises when you have drunk 3-4 cups of milk and almost all the lactose has been left undigested, which is quite impossible. This situation is more common among babies and young children than in adults.
3. Increased production of gas:
The fermentation of lactose in the colon by the microflora can lead to the production of three main gases that are, methane, hydrogen and carbon dioxide. This causes increased flatulence in your body, which makes it very uncomfortable for you and other people around you.
However, the amount of gas and flatulence produced differs from person to person, as the fermenting ability of everyone is different. Moreover, the gas produced due to the fermentation has no odor. The odor is produced only when proteins are broken down in your system and not through carbohydrates.
Although the situation of constipation in lactose intolerance is quite rare, it is still possible and even experienced by a few. Constipation is generally the difficulty of passing the stool, which is hard through your gut. It leads to irregular bowel movements and bloating.
As mentioned earlier, during the fermentation process microflora causes a fatty-acid chain reaction producing methane gas. Now, methane gas is believed to slow down the process of food passing through the intestines. This also subsequently reduces the process of digestion. This explains the hard stool.
However, constipation can also be caused by dehydration, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
5. Other symptoms:
There are various other symptoms also caused by lactose intolerance apart from bloating, flatulence, diarrhea and constipation. These include headaches, mouth ulcers, pain in muscles and joints, fatigue, and nausea. Some have also reported the loss of concentration as of the symptoms.
However, one needs to keep in mind the fact that lactose intolerance is different from milk allergy. Milk allergy causes some severe reactions such as asthma, eczema, vomiting, and rash.
How to treat lactose intolerance?
First of all, to treat lactose intolerance, you need to know whether you have it or not. One way lactose intolerance is diagnosed is through hydrogen tests. Here, you are asked to consume just 50 grams of lactose. If you are lactose intolerant, you will observe an escalation in your hydrogen levels through your breath.
One of the obvious and easiest ways to treat lactose intolerance is to abstain yourself from eating any dairy products or food products that have high-lactose, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, etc. Unless you have severe lactose intolerance, you can tolerate one cup of milk, but not more than that.