Testing Your Tolerance

One way to determine if you are lactose intolerant is to temporarily limit dairy products in your diet and note if your symptoms disappear; if so, you have your answer. There are also two medical tests that can confirm the diagnosis. One is an oral lactose tolerance test, and the other, more reliable method is a breath hydrogen test for lactose absorption.

The level of hydrogen in your breath is measured after you consume lactose, as an indicator of the amount of lactose not being digested. If you desire proof beyond that which you can get on your own, discuss these tests with your doctor.

Milk is often called the perfect food. But nearly 50 million America adults would beg to differ. They suffer from lactose intolerance, and for them, drinking milk or eating dairy products triggers gas, bloating, and cramping.

Lactose is the sugar in milk, and an enzyme called lactase is normally responsible for breaking down lactose in your digestive tract after you've consumed milk or a food made from it. Some people, however, don't make enough lactase enzyme to tackle the lactose they consume. They may be missing a little or a lot of the enzyme. Depending on the degree of enzyme deficiency, consuming dairy products, such as ice cream or cottage cheese, can trigger bouts of nausea, cramps, bloating, gas, or diarrhea, usually 30 minutes or so later.

This article will focus on the basics of lactose intolerance and how you can use alternative treatments to overcome it to enjoy your favorite foods.

Lactose Lowdown

What's your nationality or ethnic heritage? It's a good clue to whether you are lactase deficient. Some 90 percent of Asians, for example, suffer some degree of lactose intolerance. As many as 75 percent of all African American, Jewish, Native American, and Mexican-American adults are lactose intolerant. In fact, the only population left relatively unscathed by the condition are people of Northern European descent.

But lactose intolerance is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It's normal for the level of lactase in the intestinal tract to begin declining after three years of age. How steep that decline is varies greatly among individuals, accounting for a spectrum of symptoms ranging from none to a lot of diarrhea, cramping, and gas. The severity of symptoms depends on just how low your levels of the critical enzyme are. In rare cases, children are born without the ability to produce lactase. For most people, though, lactase deficiency is a condition that develops naturally over time. Many people may not experience symptoms until later in life.

Any illness that affects the lactase-producing cells of the small intestine, such as an inflammation of the bowel or even the flu, can trigger a temporary lactase deficiency. In these cases, the condition, referred to as secondary lactase deficiency, is usually temporary; once the illness is over and the damaged cells recover, they begin producing the enzyme again. However, if you have stomach or intestinal surgery, your inability to produce lactase may be permanent.

The variability of symptoms from person to person is so great that one person with lactose intolerance may be able to drink a glass of milk with no symptoms, while someone else with a more severe deficiency might not be able to tolerate a spoonful of milk in coffee without feeling the effects. And the person who had no symptoms from a single glass of milk could invite trouble if they also have ice cream for dessert, thus exceeding their ability to handle lactose.

In the next section, we will examine intolerance versus allergy and different ways to live with lactose intolerance.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.