You probably know someone with lactose intolerance. Maybe that person is a family member, a friend, or you. It is most common among Asian Americans, African Americans, and Native Americans, but affects people of all races and ethnic backgrounds.
What is lactose?
Lactose is a natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Your body makes an enzyme called lactase that breaks down lactose into sugars that your body can digest and use for energy.
What is lactose intolerance?
If you have lactose intolerance, your body may not be able to break down all the lactose that you eat or drink. This may lead to the following problems 15 minutes to several hours after eating or drinking milk or foods that contain lactose:
- Stomach cramps
What should I do if I think I have lactose intolerance?
If you think you might be lactose intolerant, it's important for you to see your health care provider. The same discomfort caused by lactose intolerance can be caused by several other conditions. Your health care provider is the only person who can tell if you are lactose intolerant or if you have another condition. Once you have the right diagnosis, you can work with your health care provider or a nutritionist to manage your symptoms.
How can your health care provider tell if you are lactose intolerant?
At first, a health care provider may tell you to stop eating or drinking foods with lactose. If your symptoms disappear, it is likely that your health care provider will tell you that you are lactose intolerant. You may also have a hydrogen breath test to confirm this diagnosis. A hydrogen breath test is done by breathing into a machine that measures the amount of hydrogen in your breath 60 minutes after you take lactose. If you are lactose intolerant, your body will produce more hydrogen than if you are lactose tolerant.
Can some people be more lactose intolerant than others?
Yes. There are different degrees of lactose intolerance. If you are lactose intolerant, over time, you will learn how much milk or other dairy products you can handle without having symptoms.
Are there different "types" of lactose intolerance?
Yes, some people:
- Become lactose intolerant as they grow older. This is the most common type of lactose intolerance.
- Can’t make lactase. People with this type of lactose intolerance have the most difficulty drinking or eating foods that contain lactose and might always have some degree of lactose intolerance.
- Develop lactose intolerance after having surgery or a gastrointestinal infection, because of malnutrition, or as a side effect of taking certain medications. This type of intolerance usually goes away after 2 to 4 weeks.
What should I do if I'm lactose intolerant?
Try these helpful tips:
- Know what foods and drinks contain lactose. Lactose is in most dairy products, some baked and processed foods such as bread, dry cereal, candy, cookies, salad dressings, cream soups, drink mixes, and prepared foods like pizza and lasagna.
- Pay attention to food labels. Food labels list all of the ingredients in order of the amount with the ingredients included in the largest amounts listed first. For example, if milk is listed first, you know that the product contains mostly milk and if you are lactose intolerant, it may be a product that you want to avoid or eat in small amounts.
- Start with small portions of dairy foods. If you can tolerate small portions, you might be able to add more a little at a time. As you slowly add dairy foods over time, you will be able to figure out just how much lactose your body can handle.
- Combine dairy foods with nondairy foods. Eating dairy foods with other foods slows the release of lactose into your body. This makes it easier for your body to digest and breakdown the lactose.
- Eat smaller portions of milk or dairy products more frequently. Instead of drinking full servings (1 cup or 8 ounces) of milk, try drinking smaller servings (1/2 cup or 4 ounces) throughout the day.
- Eat dairy foods that are naturally lower in lactose. Cheese and yogurt generally have less lactose than milk. This is because the lactose is partially broken down during the aging process in cheese and by the bacteria in yogurt.
What if these suggestions don't work?
If you still have discomfort after trying out these ideas, you may try:
- A lactase supplement before having lactose containing foods. You can buy this without a prescription and it will help your body to break down the lactose in the foods you eat or drink. One example is Lactaid®, but you can buy a generic brand. You can buy the lactase supplement as a chewable pill or liquid drops for a milk product.
- Milk or ice cream that is lactose free. Examples include Lactaid® milk and Lactaid® ice cream.
What else do I need to know?
- Learn about secret ingredients that contain lactose. These ingredients include dry milk solids (including non-fat milk solids), buttermilk, lactose, malted milk, sour or sweet cream, margarine, whey, whey protein concentrate, and cheese. Remember that baked and processed foods such as cakes and cookies may also contain lactose. Check your food labels!
- Some medications contain lactose. Ask your doctor if there is lactose in any medications that you might be taking and read the label yourself, too.
Milk allergy is different from lactose intolerance. Milk allergy is an allergic reaction to milk proteins. Someone who has lactose intolerance isn't allergic to milk, they just can't digest the lactose sugar found in milk...