You’re not alone if you feel bloated and gassy after eating or drinking milk products. Chances are, you’re lactose intolerant, just like millions of others all over the world. Lactose intolerance occurs when the body has trouble digesting milk or other dairy products. In most humans, the key enzyme that digests lactose, called lactase, stops being produced after the infant is weaned. The outcome? When they eat foods like ice cream or cheese, they can develop abdominal cramps and discomfort. Experts estimate that 68% of the global population suffers from lactose malabsorption, the biological process that causes lactose intolerance.
Have you ever wondered what exactly is going on in your body that makes you intolerant to milk and creates discomfort? Is it simply the inability to break down lactose? Or could there be more in the system at play? And most importantly, could there be something we can do about it?
Together, we’ll dive into the symptoms, science, and solutions for lactose intolerance.
What even is lactose? Lactose is a type of sugar present in mammalian milk products. Think dairy and breast milk, cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Lactose can also be found in more unexpected foods that contain milk products, like cereals, soups, processed meats, protein powders, bread, and desserts.
Lactose intolerance occurs when a person undergoes lactose malabsorption. What does this mean? Their small intestine does not produce adequate amounts of lactase to properly digest the lactose that is consumed. The lactoses sugars are then passed through the gastrointestinal tract to the colon, where their colonic microflora digest them for them. When these bacteria break down the lactose in the colon, uncomfortable symptoms can come from the fluid and gas they create. Lactose intolerance is marked by a few key symptoms:
- Bloating and gas
- Nausea, abdominal pain, or “growling” stomach sounds
Important to note, lactose intolerance is different from a milk allergy. While lactose intolerance is caused by lactase insufficiency in the small intestine, a milk allergy is an immune reaction to a milk protein.
Where does lactose intolerance come from? The basis for lactose intolerance can be genetic. People with lactose non persistence (where lactase production slows after childhood) and congenital lactase deficiency (where lactase production is slow or nonexistent from birth) have small intestines that do not make enough lactase for proper lactose digestion. Other contributing factors to lactose intolerance include injury to the small intestine and premature birth.
However, lactose intolerance can also be mediated by one’s gut microbiome.
Who’s responsible? Certain bacteria in the colonic microbiome digest the lactose that passes through the gastrointestinal system. Their fermentation products contribute to the uncomfortable symptoms associated with lactose intolerance. These microbes are called lactic acid bacteria. Two main types of bacteria are responsible.
Lactobacillus Superheroes of the probiotic world, these bacteria metabolize lactose. The final product of their fermentation process is lactic acid. Lactic acid gives cheese its signature flavor. It’s also produced by our muscles after strenuous exercise, leading to that all-too-familiar soreness tomorrow. Aside from how they can contribute to symptoms associated with lactose intolerance in people with lactase deficiency, these bacteria are typically friendly microbes in our gut.
This genus includes several bacterial species that, like Lactobacillus, can digest lactose. When they break down the sugar in the colon, the byproducts can contribute to bloating, gas, and other well-known signs of lactose intolerance. However, Bifidobacterium plays a powerful probiotic role in the microbiome. These bacteria may protect your gut from harmful bacteria, prevent cancer, and reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
What’s at stake? Dairy products contain a bounty of important macro and micronutrients, like calcium, potassium, vitamin D, choline, and vitamin B12. Thus, lactose intolerance can turn you away from any benefits that may come from dairy consumption. Lactose intolerance is also linked to a few diseases, like colon cancer.
So what is the solution to lactose intolerance? There are a few routes to take when considering ways to prevent and reduce symptoms after consuming milk products.
First, the most natural solution is to stop eating foods that contain lactose: milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, etc.
Second, while it sounds counter-intuitive, research demonstrates that eating lactose (in small amounts) can train your colonic microbiome to be better at processing lactose. Feeding the lactic acid bacteria in your colon may actually improve lactose intolerance symptoms over time. Scientists call this process colonic adaptation. However, the research on this is still under development.
Third, consider eating dairy products that contain lactase, and are de facto lactose-free. As a reminder, lactase is the enzyme needed for lactose digestion. You can also take a lactase supplement before consuming dairy. What’s the catch? These products can be expensive!
Finally, you can also alleviate symptoms of lactose intolerance by incorporating more lactic acid bacteria into your diet. You can find them in fermented foods. Think sour cream, yogurt, cheese, and sauerkraut. In fermented dairy products, fermentation decreases lactose content by approximately 25-50%! Another method to do this? Take a probiotic. You can build one that’s personalized, just for you, with Floré.