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Symptoms and Diagnosis of Lactose Intolerance

Did you know that you might be lactose intolerant and not even know it? Lactose intolerance doesn’t have to be serious, but it can affect your life. Learn about the symptoms and diagnosis.

Although some may say food allergies are an invention of the new century, they’ve actually existed ever since human beings started drinking milk and eating grains and legumes.

Today, we’ll tell you about the signs of lactose intolerance so you can determine whether or not you have problems digesting this food.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance means the body cannot easily digest lactose, a type of natural sugar found in milk and dairy products. This is not the same thing as a food allergy to milk.

When lactose moves through the large intestine (colon) without being properly digested, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, belly pain, and bloating. Some people who have lactose intolerance cannot digest any milk products. Others can eat or drink small amounts of milk products or certain types of milk products without problems.

Lactose intolerance is common in adults. It occurs more often in Native Americans and people of Asian, African, and South American descent than among people of European descent.

A big challenge for people who are lactose-intolerant is learning how to eat to avoid discomfort and to get enough calcium for healthy bones.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance shows signs between 30 minutes and 2 hours after eating or drinking foods containing lactose.

The severity of the symptoms depends on the person, the amount consumed, and how much (or little) of the lactase enzyme is in the stomach.

To clarify, these signs don’t always mean lactose intolerance. They can be “shared” with other conditions or gastrointestinal disorders (especially the stomach flu).

A “hint” that can help is looking at the time that symptoms appear. If it’s after eating or drinking milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream, etc., it’s more likely to be due to lactose intolerance.

Here’s why:

  • The fermentation of the lactose by the intestinal bacteria produces more acidic stool which can cause irritation or burning when going to the bathroom.
  • This process can also trigger bloating or abdominal pain and more gas (that lasts for several hours after eating dairy).
  • It’s likely that the stool and flatulence will be foul-smelling and strong.

Diarrhea or constipation can go hand in hand with lactose intolerance, since it produces an imbalance in intestinal flora. Stomach cramps are common, too.

Lactose intolerance in kids and teens often means nausea or vomiting.

For chronic cases (secondary lactose deficiency) you may also see:

  • Noticeable weight loss
  • Perianal redness
  • Abdominal spasms
  • Explosive diarrhea

In addition, people with these cases experience skin problems, extreme fatigue, and pain in their extremities.

How to detect lactose intolerance?

If you think you have this problem, it’s important to see a specialist. A professional will be able to diagnose your symptoms.

The most common tests are:

Glycemic response testing

  • First, blood is drawn to measure initial glycaemia levels.
  • Then, an overload of lactose is given, 50 grams every 30 minutes for 2 hours (4 doses).
  • After that, blood is drawn again to measure glucose.

If the measurements are the same, then lactase is not acting as it should.

However, this test is not very specific, since there are other disorders that can alter glycaemia, like diabetes mellitus.

Hydrogen breath test

This method is used the most for detecting lactose intolerance. The person consumes a lactose solution at 15-minute intervals, then blows into an airtight bag.

When milk sugars aren’t digested and move to the intestine, bacteria uses them as food and produce hydrogen.

Therefore, if your breath has a good amount of hydrogen, it is probably due to a problem digesting lactose.

Small intestine biopsy

An esophageal or gastrointestinal endoscope is used to perform this test.

The tissue fragments obtained are then analyzed in the laboratory to determine the presence or absence of lactase in the mucus.

Stool acidity test

This test is mostly for small children where their young age makes other studies too risky or impractical.

Genetic test

This test’s objective is to detect primary lactose intolerance caused by the MCM6 gene.

A blood or saliva sample is all it takes to analyze the two polymorphisms associated with this condition.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for lactose intolerance. But you can treat your symptoms by limiting or avoiding milk products. Some people use milk with reduced lactose, or they substitute soy milk and soy cheese for milk and milk products. Some people who are lactose-intolerant can eat yogurt without problems, especially yogurt with live cultures. You can also take dietary supplements called lactase products that help digest lactose. In time, most people who have lactose intolerance get to know their bodies well enough to avoid symptoms.

One of the biggest concerns for people who are lactose-intolerant is making sure they get enough of the nutrients found in milk products, especially calcium. Calcium is most important for children, teens, pregnant women, and women after menopause. There are many nondairy foods that contain calcium, including:

  • Broccoli, okra, kale, collards, and turnip greens.
  • Canned sardines, tuna, and salmon.
  • Calcium-fortified juices and cereals.
  • Calcium-fortified soy products such as soy milk, tofu, and soybeans.
  • Almonds.

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