People with lactose intolerance have problems digesting lactose. This condition is also known as lactose malabsorption. Lactose is the sugar component in dairy.
An estimated 70% to 75% of the population worldwide is deficient in lactose. If this deficiency is mild, a person can still manage to digest lactose. However, if the deficiency becomes more severe, they can develop lactose intolerance. Those with diarrhea-predominant IBS and other conditions have a higher risk of developing it.
The exact prevalence of true lactose intolerance is unknown. Many people report problems based on symptoms, but never get tests to confirm. However, symptoms are uncomfortable, so you should address and treat them.
In this article, we’ll explore everything there is to know about lactose intolerance. We’ll discuss the symptoms, diagnostic tests, solutions, and how to know if you have it.
How Can I Tell if I am Lactose Intolerant?
If you experience symptoms 30 minutes to two hours after consuming dairy products, you may be lactose intolerant. Products that contain lactose include:
- Salad dressing
- Processed food
So, what are the symptoms of lactose intolerance? The main symptoms include:
- Stomach cramps
- Growling or rumbling of the stomach
- Excess gas (burping or flatulence)
Young children are more likely to develop skin rashes and frequent colds. Some may also experience headaches, migraines, fatigue, and brain fog.
These symptoms develop because the small intestine doesn’t make enough lactase. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose. This milk sugar ends up in the colon where it ferments instead of absorbed in the bloodstream.
Some cases have a genetic component. Certain genetic variations increase your predisposition to develop lactose intolerance. In other cases, this condition develops secondary to other digestive diseases. These diseases can include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, bacterial overgrowth in the small bowel (SIBO), or Crohn’s disease.
Lactose Intolerance vs. Milk Allergy
Lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy. A milk allergy is an immune reaction to proteins from milk. Some allergy cases are mild, while others are severe and need medical treatment.
In addition to the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance, milk allergies also cause:
- Swelling of the lips and face
- Tightness in the chest
- Trouble swallowing
Some people may have a milk intolerance not because of lactose, but due to the casein A1 from cow’s dairy. In this case, they can tolerate other dairies like goat, sheep, and buffalo. Some can also tolerate cow’s dairy that contains casein A2.
How Do You Test for Lactose Intolerance?
You can get an idea if you have lactose intolerance with a simple test at home. First, avoid completely cow’s dairy for a few days. One day, in the morning, drink a couple of glasses of milk. Record all the symptoms you experience 30 minutes to two hours after drinking the milk. Do you experience any of the symptoms we listed above? If so, you may have lactose intolerance.
Genetic tests like 23 and Me and ones specifically created to detect lactose intolerance are available online. Remember, these tests show if you have a predisposition or increased risk to develop it. They do not confirm the diagnosis.
The best way to test and confirm if you have lactose intolerance is to talk to your doctor. They can conduct a hydrogen breath test to diagnose the condition. This test involves consuming a drink with high amounts of lactose and measuring hydrogen levels in the breath. If you breathe excess hydrogen, it means you don’t fully digest lactose.
A second option is the lactose tolerance test. This is a blood test performed two hours after consuming a liquid with high amounts of lactose. If the glucose levels stay the same, it means you aren’t digesting lactose properly.
How Do You Fix Lactose Intolerance?
There is no cure for lactose intolerance. The easiest way to avoid symptoms is to simply avoid lactose. There are many dairy-free alternatives nowadays to milk, yogurt, cheese, and ice creams.
Be aware that many people with lactose intolerance also have a sensitivity to gluten. For this reason, many gluten-free, lactose-free products are available.
You may decide to switch from regular dairy to plant-based alternatives. In this case, add more protein and micronutrients like calcium, phosphorus, iron, and B vitamin-rich foods to your diet. Dairy alternatives contain less of these nutrients than regular dairy.
Another option is to use lactase supplements when eating dairy products. The milk labeled “lactose-free” has added lactase. Many people are able to avoid symptoms this way.
You can try consuming another dairy like goat, sheep, or buffalo and see if you can tolerate them.
It’s also important to properly manage any underlying conditions you may have. Treating common digestive issues like IBS, SIBO, or celiac disease may improve lactose intolerance.
Overall, try to keep a clean healthy diet without processed foods. This can improve digestion and how you absorb nutrients from food. It can also relieve symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Food intolerance or sensitivity tests may reveal other food triggers that cause symptoms. Pair these tests with a food journal as they are not always 100% accurate. You know your body best and how what you eat makes you feel.