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What "Lactose Intolerant" Means

Most adult humans around the world are lactose intolerant to some extent, and they experience cramps, bloating, diarrhea, gas and nausea after consuming a big does of dairy. The condition is caused when individuals don’t produce enough lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose, a form of sugar and one ingredient in a mother’s breast milk. A baby’s body produces an enzyme — lactase — that’s specially designed to help digest the lactose in milk.

With the help of lactase, the body breaks down lactose into small forms of sugar — glucose and galactose — that are readily absorbed into the bloodstream and used to produce energy. Mammal mothers only make milk until their infants are nourished and have developed well enough to tolerate solid foods. Until then, a mother’s milk provides her offspring with special substances that boost immunity and provide the calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals they need to grow.

Identifying the symptoms of lactose intolerance

If you’re lactose intolerant, your body might experience any of a number of unpleasant symptoms. When undigested milk sugars enter the colon, bacteria cause them to ferment and result in symptoms.

The symptoms of lactose intolerance are similar to the symptoms you may experience from time to time when you’re sick, have a mild case of food poisoning, or ate something that didn’t agree with you that day, including:

  • Abdominal cramps

  • Bloating

  • Diarrhea

  • Gas

  • Nausea

Some people suffer symptoms of lactose intolerance for years before making the connection between what they eat and how they feel.

Lactose intolerance affects individuals differently. Even within families, one person’s level of tolerance for lactose may be different than another’s.

Don’t assume you have lactose intolerance just because you have gas, bloating, nausea, abdominal cramps, or diarrhea. Other conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and others, can cause similar symptoms. Your healthcare provider can help you make an accurate diagnosis.

Also, don’t confuse lactose intolerance with milk allergy. They’re two different conditions. In milk allergy, the body has an immune response to proteins in cow’s milk. This situation is more common in infants less than 1 year old, while lactose intolerance is more common in adolescents and adults.

Degrees of lactose intolerance

Every human has a unique genetic makeup, and many people have family trees with branches from various parts of the world. So it makes sense that some people may be more or less able to tolerate dairy in their diets. Lactose malabsorption or intolerance doesn’t affect everyone. In fact, up to about 25 percent of the world’s adult humans can digest milk without problems. However, the breakdown on who’s affected has many shades of gray. Think of lactose malabsorption and lactose intolerance as being on a continuum.

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