Alternative Treatments for Lactose Intolerance

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.

 

Treatment Options

One of the most common misconceptions about lactose intolerance is that it is a milk allergy. Though the two are often confused, the difference is a critical one.

The inability to completely digest lactose rarely translates into the need for a milk-free diet. But if you have a milk allergy, even minute amounts can trigger a serious reaction. Symptoms of a true milk allergy include a runny nose, puffy eyes, skin rash, vomiting, tightness in the throat, and difficulty breathing. There is no connection between having a milk allergy, which is due to an immune response to a protein, and having lactose intolerance, which is an enzyme deficiency.

Lactose intolerance is most common in adults, whereas milk allergies are seen mostly in children. Essentially all children who develop a milk allergy develop it in their first year or so, and the vast majority will eventually outgrow it. In the end, very few people carry milk allergies with them into late childhood or adulthood.

Living with Lactose

Milk and other dairy products are a major source of nutrients in the diet. An important one that we generally turn to dairy foods to provide is calcium. So, if you cut back on foods high in lactose, you may not meet your needs for calcium and other nutrients.

Fortunately, most people who are lactose deficient don't have to completely cut dairy foods from their diets. In fact, it's been estimated that about 80 percent of people with lactose intolerance are still able to drink enough milk for good nutrition. Many people can drink a cup of milk with a meal without any problems. Drinking milk with other foods slows its digestion and allows the body more time to digest the lactose. Recent research shows that regular intake of lactose may even improve tolerance over time.

Another way to get plenty of bone-building calcium and other nutrients is with lactose-reduced milk, available in the milk case at most groceries. Or you can try lactase-enzyme supplements. Available as over-the-counter caplets or chewable tablets, these supplements are taken along with dairy food.

Also available are lactase-enzyme drops that you add to regular milk to predigest the milk's lactose before you drink it (keep in mind, however, that you must add the drops 24 hours in advance of drinking the milk to give the drops time to work).

Just how diligent you must be in avoiding lactose depends entirely on how sensitive you are. But here are a few tips that may help you minimize your lactose problems.

  • Give yogurt a try. Many people who suffer lactose intolerance are better able to tolerate yogurt. Yogurts labeled as containing "live active cultures" contain friendly bacteria that help digest lactose. Yogurt is also a good source of calcium.
  • Drink chocolate milk. The calcium in chocolate milk is just as well absorbed as that in regular milk, and you may tolerate flavored milk better than plain.
  • You may be better able to tolerate aged hard cheeses such as cheddar, Colby, Swiss, and Parmesan. These cheeses contain little lactose compared with milk and softer cheeses because the whey, which contains most of the lactose, separates from the cheese during processing.
  • Try drinking milk with your meals, instead of on its own, and drink smaller amounts of milk throughout the day. If you can't tolerate a whole cup of milk at one sitting, you might do just fine having half cup with your breakfast and another half cup with your evening meal.
  • Be aware that lactose is also found in some prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs as an "inactive ingredient." Check labels and/or consult your pharmacist. If there are other suitable medications available that don't contain lactose fillers, you may want to consider switching, but you'll need to discuss this possibility with your doctor first, especially for prescription medications or any nonprescription drugs you need to take on a regular basis.
  • Some nondairy foods that may contain lactose include breads, frozen vegetables, soups, salad dressings, cereals, breakfast drinks, cake mixes, and candies. Scan the ingredient lists of these types of products for milk, milk solids, whey, curds, and cheese as clues that lactose is lurking in them.
  • Treat buttermilk and acidophilus milk the same as regular milk. They contain lactose, and contrary to what you may have heard before, they are generally no better tolerated than regular milk.
  • Fat slows the passage of lactose through your digestive system, giving your body more time to work on digesting it. So if you have trouble tolerating skim milk but don't want all the fat and calories from whole milk, try drinking one percent or two percent milk instead.

Living with lactose intolerance doesn't have to mean you permanently can't drink milk. With proper planning and precaution, many lactose intolerance sufferers can enjoy the foods they want to eat.

©Publications International, Ltd.

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.