Milk and dairy products comprise about 24 percent of the average Australian diet. As good sources of calcium, dairy products help children develop good bones and adults fight bone loss and osteoporosis. Not everyone, however, can digest milk sugar or lactose well. This condition is also referred to as lactose intolerance which can be uncomfortable and present unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhoea and stomach gas.
Causes of lactose intolerance
Your body produces lactase, an enzyme that breaks down milk sugar into simpler forms before they are absorbed in the bloodstream. When there is an absence or insufficiency of lactase in your intestines, lactase deficiency may develop and may lead to lactose intolerance. Not all cases of lactase deficiency result in lactose intolerance. Some races are more predisposed to lactase deficiency than others. Research also confirms a genetic link in lactase deficiency which increases one’s risk of developing lactose intolerance. You may also develop lactase deficiency when Crohn’s disease, severe diarrhoea or chemotherapy injures your small intestines.
Signs and symptoms
Symptoms of lactose intolerance include abdominal cramps, bloating, passing of flatus or gas, diarrhoea and nausea. These occur 30 minutes to 2 hours after ingestion of milk or dairy products. Mildness or severity of the symptoms may vary according to the degree of intolerance and the amount of lactose consumed. Some people with lactose intolerance may still be able to consume milk or dairy products without showing digestive symptoms.
Management of Lactose Intolerance
Milk and dairy products remain your body’s best source of calcium to maintain healthy bones and prevent bone breakage. While you may not be able to alter the way your body produces lactase, you may still be able to prevent the symptoms of lactose intolerance with the following:
Reducing the amount of lactose-containing food in your diet is the most obvious way to avoid lactose intolerance. Replace cow’s milk with non dairy choices like soy or rice milk. Other foods that are not strictly milk products may also contain lactose in any of its ingredients. These include breads, baked goods, processed breakfast products, donuts, waffles, candies, non-dairy coffee creamers and whipped toppings. Always check the food label to ensure that what you are buying does not contain lactose in disguise. Ingredients to watch out for include whey, curds, milk by-products, dry milk solids and non-fat dry milk powder. People who do not suffer from severe lactose intolerance may still consume milk or dairy products albeit in small or limited quantities. Consuming lactose food together with a meal may also increase its chances of being tolerated by your stomach as your meal may lessen the impact of an otherwise full load of lactose.
You need not suffer from calcium loss if you are lactose intolerant as there are non milk products that are also good sources of calcium. These include fish with soft bones like sardines and salmon and leafy greens like spinach. While limiting or avoiding milk products helps prevent lactose intolerance, yogurt containing live cultured bacteria may be safely taken and is an excellent source of calcium. The healthy micro-organisms found in yogurt converts lactose into lactic acid which is well tolerated by your intestines. In fact, healthy bacteria are essential to a good digestive system.
People with lactose intolerance need not suffer from calcium deficiency. Calcium may be obtained from calcium supplements and calcium fortified orange drinks. As calcium levels drop, you may also suffer from Vitamin-D deficiency. Your body may produce its own Vitamin-D by being exposed to early morning sunlight for a maximum of 15 minutes two or three times a week. Remember to apply some sunscreen. Some orange juice suppliers also enrich their freshly squeezed juices with Vitamin-D and calcium for healthier bones. Lactase enzymes are also available in supplement form but should only be taken with proper health advice.