Understanding Lactose Intolerance

Creamy pumpkin spice drinks, rustic cheese boards, cheesecake, and butter pecan ice cream — plenty of delicious fall foods can spell trouble for the lactose intolerant. So just what is lactose intolerance, and how can you cope with it? 

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a common digestive disorder characterized by the body’s inability to properly digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. This condition occurs when the small intestine lacks enough of an enzyme called lactase, which is responsible for breaking down lactose into simpler sugars, glucose, and galactose, so that they can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Here’s how lactose intolerance works:

  1. Ingestion of Lactose: When you consume foods or drinks that contain lactose, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, or ice cream, the lactose enters your digestive system.
  2. Lactase Deficiency: In individuals with lactose intolerance, there is either insufficient lactase production or the lactase that is produced doesn’t function properly. As a result, not all of the ingested lactose gets broken down.
  3. Undigested Lactose: The undigested lactose then moves into the large intestine (colon), where it encounters bacteria.
  4. Fermentation: Bacteria in the colon begin to ferment the undigested lactose, producing gases (such as hydrogen and methane) and various organic acids. This fermentation process can lead to various gastrointestinal symptoms.

Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea

The severity of symptoms can vary from person to person. Some individuals with lactose intolerance can tolerate small amounts of lactose without significant discomfort, while others may experience symptoms even with tiny amounts of lactose.

Is lactose intolerance an allergy to milk?

It’s important to note that lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy. A milk allergy is an immune system response to proteins found in milk, whereas lactose intolerance is a digestive issue related to the inability to break down lactose.

If you have a dairy allergy, your response to milk will include things like swelling or breathing problems. You should avoid dairy products completely if you are allergic to milk. 

Managing lactose intolerance

People with lactose intolerance may choose to avoid high-lactose dairy products like milk. You may be fine with butter, hard cheeses, sour cream, and premium ice cream. You may also find that you can enjoy some dairy products some of the time, but that you need to limit the amounts and frequency with which you eat or drink them.

Some people find that even milk chocolate can lead to an upset stomach. Since responses vary so much, it’s a good plan to keep a food diary so you can identify patterns in your personal response to dairy products. This can help you monitor and plan your consumption of these foods.

You can also use lactase supplements, which provide the missing enzyme and can help with lactose digestion when taken before consuming dairy.

If you suspect you have lactose intolerance or are experiencing symptoms, it’s advisable to consult your family doctor for proper diagnosis and guidance on managing your diet and symptoms.


Image courtesy of Canva.