Are You Lactose Intolerant?

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If that sleep-inducing glass of warm milk you count on each night has started leaving you with an annoying case of intestinal upset, you might be lactose intolerant.

Lactose intolerance is the inability to break down a complex sugar called lactose. Lactose is found in milk and other dairy products. It consists of two simple sugars, glucose and galactose.

You can become lactose intolerant at any time in life, but it’s most common in adulthood. It’s estimated that 30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant.

As a matter of fact, when you were a baby, you were probably able to break down lactose very easily. That’s because the small intestine in most babies contains plenty of lactase. Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down lactose so your body is able to digest and absorb it. Unfortunately, the level of lactase in your body may have begun to decrease as soon as your breast feeding days were over.

Interestingly, whether or not you lack lactase depends a lot on your ethnicity. Nearly 100 percent of Asians and 80 percent of blacks and Hispanics experience a drop in lactase levels. However, about 80 percent of people who are of northern European descent continue to produce lactase in their adult years.

If you’re lactose intolerant, you probably experience some of the following symptoms within 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating dairy products.

  • Abdominal cramps and pain

  • Bloating

  • Diarrhea

  • Flatulence

  • Gas

  • Nausea

Although these symptoms are usually mild, they can become more severe if you’ve eaten a meal containing a lot of lactose.

The digestive problems associated with lactose intolerance can also be symptomatic of other conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome. However, if your doctor suspects you’re lactose intolerant, he’ll probably instruct you to stop eating foods that contain lactose for at least a month.

Your doctor can also confirm that you’re lactose intolerant through two other tests.

  • Lactose intolerance test: You’ll drink a liquid that contains a large amount of lactose. After you drink the solution, your blood will be tested to see if you’re properly digesting and absorbing glucose.

  • Hydrogen breath test: You’ll drink a lactose liquid in this test too, but instead of checking your blood-glucose level, your doctor will check your breath for the presence of hydrogen. Hydrogen will be present in a significant amount only if your body isn’t digesting lactose.

If your doctor confirms you’re lactose intolerant, don’t despair. Many people who lack the lactase enzyme can enjoy small amounts of lactose-containing foods. Start with a very small amount (less than a half cup) and, through a bit of trial and error, find the amount of dairy foods your body can tolerate.

Many grocers carry lactose-reduced and lactose-free dairy products. In addition, ask your doctor about over-the-counter lactose enzymes. They come in tablets or drops. The tablets can be taken before you eat lactose foods and the drops can be added to milk.

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