Lactose intolerance is a health condition that results in the inability to break down a type of natural sugar called lactose. Lactose is found in dairy products, such as milk and yoghurt. People become lactose intolerant when their small intestine stops making enough of the enzyme lactase to digest and break down the lactose. When this happens, the undigested lactose moves into the large intestine.
Here, the bacteria that are normally present in the large intestine interact with the undigested lactose and cause symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhoea. The condition may also be called lactase deficiency. Lactose intolerance is very common in adults, particularly those with Asian, African, and Hispanic ancestry.
Types of lactose intolerance
Below are the types of lactose intolerance, each with different causes.
Primary lactose intolerance
This is the most common type of lactose intolerance. Most people are born with just enough lactase. Babies need the enzyme in order to digest their mother’s milk. The amount of lactase a person makes may decrease over time. This is because as people age, they eat a more diverse diet and rely less on milk. The decline in lactase is gradual.
Secondary lactose intolerance
Intestinal diseases such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a surgery, or an injury to the small intestine can also cause lactose intolerance. Lactase levels may be restored if the underlying disorder is treated.
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Congenital or developmental lactose intolerance
In very rare cases, Children inherit lactose intolerance from their parents. It is a defective gene transmitted from the parents to a child. This results in the complete absence of lactase in the child.
Here, the affected baby will be intolerant of br*ast milk. They will have diarrhoea as soon as human milk or a formula containing lactose is introduced. If it’s not recognized and treated early on, the condition can be life-threatening. Diarrhoea can cause dehydration and electrolyte loss. Feed babies with this condition with lactose-free infant formula instead of milk.
Developmental lactose intolerance
Here, lactose intolerance occurs when a baby is born prematurely. This is because lactase production in the baby begins later in the pregnancy, after at least 34 weeks.
Symptoms typically occur between 30 minutes and two hours after eating or drinking a milk or dairy product. The symptoms can range from mild to severe. The severity depends on how much lactose was consumed and how much lactase the person has.
Symptoms may include:
- Abdominal cramps
Treatment for lactose intolerance
There’s currently no way to make your body produce more lactase. Treatment for this condition involves decreasing or completely removing milk products from the diet. Many people who are lactose intolerant can still have up to 1/2 cup of milk without experiencing any symptoms.
Lactose-free milk products are found in most supermarkets. Also not all dairy products contain a lot of lactose. Cultured milk products like yoghurt, low-fat or nonfat milk products typically have less lactose. An over-the-counter lactase enzyme is available in capsule, pill, drops, or chewable form to take before consuming dairy products.
People who are lactose intolerant and do not consume milk or dairy products may become deficient in:
- Vitamin D
Therefore, taking calcium supplements or eating foods that are either naturally high in calcium or are calcium-fortified is recommended.
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