Lactose Intolerance: What You Need to Know

Last Updated Aug 13, 2019

Lactose intolerance is relatively common and can be a frustrating and uncomfortable experience for sufferers if not managed correctly.  The good news is that the more you know about your specific condition, the more flexible your diet can be.

What is Lactose and What Does it Do in Your Body?

Lactose is a sugar (a carbohydrate) made up of glucose and galactose molecules.  It is found in the milk of mammals.  As it is found in milk, it is also present in milk products.  Lactose is a sugar so is normally absorbed by the body and used as fuel for the brain and muscles once converted to glucose.

How Intolerance Occurs

Once an item containing lactose has been consumed, it is passed from the mouth down the esophagus to the stomach and then onto the small intestine.  Normally the body produces an enzyme called lactase which is present in order to breakdown lactose molecules into glucose and galactose.  This occurs in the small intestine.  Normally lactose is broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream by the villi.  If there is not enough lactase present the lactose is not digested properly and it then continues through the digestive system to the large intestine where it becomes fermented.

This fermentation process is what causes the symptoms of lactose intolerance: the bloating, wind, loose bowel motions and diarrhoea.

As we age we can lose the capacity to produce as much lactase in the villi of the small intestine.  Lactase production can also be decreased if the villi are damaged (for example when you have had an infection or stomach "bug").  Some individuals are also genetically predisposed to producing less lactase.

What You Can Eat if You Are Lactose Intolerant

Depending on the severity of your lactose intolerance you may be able to continue to eat some lactose containing foods.  If the villi in your small intestine still produces a small amount of lactase you may be able to have small amounts of these foods throughout the day, but if you have very little lactase production you may need to use lactose-free products. 

The best way to manage your lactose intolerance is to visit a dietitian or nutritionist for more advice on how severe your lactose intolerance is, and to discuss what foods you may be able to include in your diet.

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Originally published on Sep 13, 2011

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