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For the uninitiated, lactose is a type of sugar found naturally in the milk of mammals and also happens to be the main source of calories in milk. Ideally, this complex sugar is supposed to be broken down into a pair of simpler sugars—namely, glucose and galactose—for easy absorption into the bloodstream through the small intestine.
In the case of lactose intolerance though, this ideal scenario doesn’t quite exist and thus, the milk which is otherwise a great source of calcium, several vitamins, and fats, might not go down too well with the body, doing you more harm than good and well, placing you in the category of lactose-intolerant people.
What exactly does it mean?
The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines it as “an impaired ability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products.” You may be able to digest lactose partially or not at all—depending on your lactase production.
Basically, when you’re an infant, you need more of the lactase enzyme to digest mom’s breast milk. With age, your lactase production tends to decrease, making it exceptionally difficult for you to digest lactose. As per a study published in the journal Nutrients, we undergo “a genetically programmed decrease in lactase synthesis after weaning (primary lactase deficiency during infancy).” This is what is known as primary lactose intolerance.
In case you’re lucky enough to still have enough lactase in your body while you’re all grown up, don’t celebrate just yet. There’s a rare but fair chance of all of us developing secondary lactose intolerance due to a temporary decrease in lactase production because of inflammation in the gut wall post an illness such as a stomach bug or a celiac disease.
Why take it seriously?
The result of any type of lactose intolerance is sheer discomfort in the stomach after the consumption of milk or dairy products. But, that’s not it.
The study quoted above warns that the unabsorbed lactose that stays in the intestinal tract can lead to gastrointestinal infection, bowel bacterial overgrowth, inflammatory bowel disease, and other health issues.
Now, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal, almost all Asians and Native Americans are likely to be lactose intolerant. Sadly, this also means that there’s a high probability of us not being aware of whether we are lactose intolerant.
So, here’s how you can find out
These 5 common symptoms of lactose intolerance can help you identify whether you’re suffering from it:
(P.S. If you happen to find the mentioned symptoms relatable, you must see your doctor for help and cut out milk from your diet while banking on other food sources to fulfil your nutritional requirements.)
Diarrhoea: A study published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings defines diarrhoea as a condition wherein a person passes more than 200 grams of stool, usually high in liquid volume, within 24 hours. And you’re highly likely to face this problem—especially after the consumption of milk and other dairy products such as cottage cheese, butter, ghee, etc.
Research published in the Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics points out the reason behind this rather uncomfortable symptom of lactose intolerance and explains that the leftover acids from the partially digested lactose along with the completely undigested lactose can increase the amount of water in your colon (a tube-like organ in the large intestines which is responsible for removing water from digested food and passing on the solid waste to the rectum for excretion). This is exactly why you get those loosies over and over again.
Stomach pain: Thanks to the inability of your intestines to absorb lactose, it is likely to be fermented instead in the colon, or so says the same study quoted above. This, in turn, leads to the release of short-chain fatty acids and gases such as hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. As a result, you could experience stomach ache and cramps—especially around the navel area.
Bloating: The increased water content in the colon along with these gases can stretch out the walls of your gut, leading to bloating. In some cases, this bloating can even lead to nausea and vomiting as per a study published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal.
Gas problem: The fermentation of undigested lactose into acids and gases can obviously lead to gas accumulation in your intestines—so much so, that you may feel uneasy despite the numerous burps and farts.
Gross right? But, there’s nothing stopping your body from becoming habituated and efficient at fermenting undigested lactose over time. However, note that the gas due to lactose fermentation is odourless. So, if those burps and farts stink, they could be a result of the undigested protein in the gut—not lactose.
Constipation: A rare symptom of lactose intolerance, constipation is the exact opposite of diarrhoea, and involves passing harder, infrequent stools, lack of bowel movement, and excessive straining during defecation, according to a study published in the journal Clinics in Geriatric Medicine.
Do you remember how we explained the fermentation of undigested lactose leads to the production of gases like hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide? Well, in this case, methane acts as a villain and slows down the movement of food through your gut, making you constipated and uneasy.
All said and done, don’t get confused about your condition
Many people may be allergic to cow’s milk and may take their food allergy for lactose intolerance. However, they’re different and the milk allergy can be characterized by skin rashes, asthma, and nausea.
Another similar digestion problem that is likely to be confused with lactose intolerance is Crohn’s disease, which is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and has symptoms similar to that of lactose intolerance.
While clarifying with your doctor can be the safest bet to identify and thus, treat your condition, symptoms such as loss of appetite, blood in the stool, and fever are unique to Crohn’s disease and can help you distinguish between these strikingly similar health issues.