Food & Nutrition
Lactose Intolerance: Symptoms and Treatment
Got Pain from Milk?
Doubling over in pain or rushing to the bathroom after eating a bowl of cereal or drinking a glass of milk could be a sign that you’re lactose intolerant. Lactose is a sugar that’s found primarily in dairy products.
An enzyme called lactase is needed to digest lactose, but if your body doesn’t make enough lactase, you may suffer from symptoms associated with lactose intolerance. Click through the slideshow to learn more about causes, symptoms, and management of this condition.
What Causes Lactose Intolerance?
According to the Mayo Clinic, lactose intolerance can occur from:
- Genetics. Some people inherit a gene from their parents that makes it more likely they will develop primary lactase deficiency. Rarely are babies born with the total inability to produce lactase. This is called congenital lactose intolerance.
- Normal aging. A gradual decline in lactase production can lead to what’s known as primary lactose intolerance in some people.
- Illness or injury. Your small intestine may produce less lactase after you’ve had surgery or after an illness or injury. This is known as secondary lactose intolerance.
Primary Lactose Intolerance
Primary lactose intolerance is a condition in which your body’s production of lactase decreases. The decline of enzyme production generally begins when the child is a toddler, explains the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC), and may be more prevalent in children who have a parent who is also lactose intolerant.
Children who become lactose intolerant don’t always display signs of the condition right away. It’s possible to have a lactase deficiency yet not suffer from the symptoms until later—usually in the teen years.
Secondary Lactose Intolerance
Secondary lactose intolerance occurs when illness or premature birth contributes to the inability to digest milk products. The condition may be temporary or permanent. Digestive illnesses such as diarrhea and celiac disease can provoke secondary lactose intolerance.
Babies who are born before term may have trouble digesting milk-based formula or their mothers’ milk due to the premature nature of the digestive system. In both instances, the ability to digest lactose may be restored once the digestive tract heals or matures.
Signs of Trouble
Digestive unrest is a broad term used to describe the symptoms consistent with lactose intolerance. Stomach cramps, diarrhea, gas, bloating, and nausea are common symptoms of the condition.
According to the NDDIC, the timing of the symptoms of lactose intolerance varies. Some people may feel unwell as soon as a half-hour after consuming a milk product, while others may not become symptomatic for several hours. The severity of the symptoms often depends on the amount of dairy you have consumed.
How Can I Manage This?
Lactose intolerance isn’t the same thing as a food allergy, yet you may need to manage the condition similarly, by eliminating milk products from your diet.
Lactose (the sugar found in milk) may be added ingredients in a variety of packaged foods and may cause symptoms even if the food isn’t classified as a dairy product. Avoid milk products altogether and drink enriched lactose-free milks such as soy, almond, or rice to get your daily dose of calcium and vitamin D.
The Mayo Clinic notes that some dairy products contain less lactose than others. For example, some people are able to eat certain cheeses that are low in lactose, and others may be able to consume yogurt.
Another solution to managing lactose intolerance is to take an enzyme supplement before consuming milk products. Lactase supplements are available in liquid or tablet form and give your body the added enzyme it needs to digest milk.
Kids and Vitamin D
Parents of children who are lactose intolerant may struggle with meeting the nutritional needs of their kids, particularly adequate amounts of vitamin D. According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily requirements of vitamin D by age are:
- 0-12 months: 400 international units (IU) (10 mcg)
- 1-13 years: 600 IU (15 mcg)
- 14-18 years: 600 IU (15 mcg)
Nutrition for Kids
Calcium is important in children’s diets as well. To help prevent inadequate calcium ingestion, complement your child’s diet with calcium-rich produce including:
- dark leafy greens
- pinto beans
- oranges or orange juice that’s fortified with calcium
- fish such as tuna and salmon
Vitamin D is tougher to find as it is naturally present in very few other foods (salmon, swordfish), added to others (fortified orange juice), and available as a dietary supplement (vitamin tablets, cod liver oil). Speak to your child’s pediatrician to determine if a supplement is in order.
Attention to Detail
Managing lactose intolerance is an ongoing process. Although the body's ability to produce lactase cannot be changed, the symptoms of lactose intolerance can be managed with dietary changes.
According to the Mayo Clinic, kids who still show signs of lactose intolerance should be treated with enzyme supplements and alternative food choices under the direction of a doctor.