Lactose intolerance is the inability to break down a type of natural sugar called lactose. Lactose is commonly found in dairy products, such as milk and yogurt.
You become lactose intolerant when your small intestine stops making enough of the enzyme lactase to digest and break down the lactose. When this happens, the undigested lactose moves into the large intestine.
The bacteria that are normally present in your large intestine interact with the undigested lactose and cause symptoms such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea. The condition may also be called lactase deficiency.
Lactose intolerance is very common in adults, particularly those with Asian, African, and Hispanic ancestry.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, more than 30 million American people are lactose intolerant. The condition isn’t serious but may be unpleasant.
Lactose intolerance usually causes gastrointestinal symptoms, such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea, about 30 minutes to two hours after ingesting milk or other dairy products containing lactose.
People who are lactose intolerant may need to avoid eating these products or take medications containing the lactase enzyme before doing so.
Types of lactose intolerance
There are three main types of lactose intolerance, each with different causes:
Primary lactose intolerance (normal result of aging)
This is the most common type of lactose intolerance.
Most people are born with enough lactase. Babies need the enzyme in order to digest their mother’s milk. The amount of lactase a person makes may decrease over time. This is because as people age, they eat a more diverse diet and rely less on milk.
The decline in lactase is gradual. This type of lactose intolerance is more common in people with Asian, African, and Hispanic ancestry.
Secondary lactose intolerance (due to illness or injury)
Intestinal diseases such as celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), a surgery, or an injury to your small intestine can also cause lactose intolerance. Lactase levels may be restored if the underlying disorder is treated.
Congenital or developmental lactose intolerance (being born with the condition)
In very rare cases, lactose intolerance is inherited. A defective gene can be transmitted from the parents to a child, resulting in the complete absence of lactase in the child. This is referred to as congenital lactose intolerance.
In this case, your baby will be intolerant of breast milk. They will have diarrhea as soon as human milk or a formula containing lactose is introduced. If it’s not recognized and treated early on, the condition can be life-threatening.
The diarrhea can cause dehydration and electrolyte loss. The condition can be treated easily by giving the baby a lactose-free infant formula instead of milk.
Developmental lactose intolerance
Occasionally, a type of lactose intolerance called developmental lactose intolerance occurs when a baby is born prematurely. This is because lactase production in the baby begins later in the pregnancy, after at least 34 weeks.
What to look for
The symptoms of lactose intolerance typically occur between 30 minutes and two hours after eating or drinking a milk or dairy product. Symptoms may include:
- abdominal cramps
The symptoms can range from mild to severe. The severity depends on how much lactose was consumed and how much lactase the person has actually made.
How is lactose intolerance diagnosed?
If you’re experiencing cramps, bloating, and diarrhea after drinking milk or eating and drinking milk products, your doctor may want to test you for lactose intolerance. Confirmatory tests measure lactase activity in the body. These tests include:
Lactose intolerance test
A lactose intolerance test is a blood test that measures your body’s reaction to a liquid that contains high lactose levels.
Hydrogen breath test
A hydrogen breath test measures the amount of hydrogen in your breath after consuming a drink high in lactose. If your body is unable to digest the lactose, the bacteria in your intestine will break it down instead.
The process by which bacteria break down sugars like lactose is called fermentation. Fermentation releases hydrogen and other gases. These gases are absorbed and eventually exhaled.
If you aren’t fully digesting lactose, the hydrogen breath test will show a higher than normal amount of hydrogen in your breath.
Stool acidity test
This test is more often done in infants and children. It measures the amount of lactic acid in a stool sample. Lactic acid accumulates when bacteria in the intestine ferment the undigested lactose.
How is lactose intolerance treated?
There’s currently no way to make your body produce more lactose. Treatment for lactose intolerance involves decreasing or completely removing milk products from the diet.
Many people who are lactose intolerant can still have up to 1/2 cup of milk without experiencing any symptoms. Lactose-free milk products can also be found at most supermarkets. And not all dairy products contain a lot of lactose.
You may still be able to eat some hard cheeses, such as cheddar, Swiss, and Parmesan, or cultured milk products like yogurt. Low-fat or nonfat milk products typically have less lactose as well.
An over-the-counter lactase enzyme is available in capsule, pill, drops, or chewable form to take before consuming dairy products. The drops can also be added to a carton of milk.
People who are lactose intolerant and not consuming milk or dairy products may become deficient in:
Adjusting to a lactose-free diet and lifestyle
Symptoms will go away if milk and milk products are removed from the diet. Read food labels carefully to detect ingredients that may contain lactose. Aside from milk and cream, look out for ingredients derived from milk, such as:
- whey or whey protein concentrate
- casein or caseinates
- dry milk solids or powder
Many foods that you would not expect to contain milk may actually contain milk and lactose. Examples include:
- salad dressings
- frozen waffles
- nonkosher lunch meats
- dry breakfast cereals
- baking mixes
- many instant soups
Milk and milk products are often added to processed foods. Even some nondairy creamers and medications may contain milk products and lactose.
Lactose intolerance cannot be prevented. The symptoms of lactose intolerance can be prevented by eating less dairy.
Drinking low-fat or fat-free milk may also result in fewer symptoms. Try dairy milk alternatives such as:
- rice milk
Milk products with the lactose removed are also available.