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Digestive Disorders - Lactose Intolerance

Lactose is the sugar primarily found in milk and dairy products. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose. The enzyme lactase is an enzyme needed to digest lactose. Lactose intolerance arises because of the shortage of the lactase enzyme produced by the small intestine in the body. In the absence of this enzyme, the lactose does not get broken down. Instead, it goes into the colon, where it mixes with the normal bacteria and ferments. It can lead to an increase in acids, gas and water, causing stomach pain and cramps. The pain is usually located around the navel and in the lower half of the tummy. While lactose intolerance is not dangerous, its symptoms can be uncomfortable.

Most people with a mild intolerance or sensitivity can include varying amounts of lactose in their diets without experiencing symptoms. Often, affected individuals have difficulty digesting fresh milk but can eat certain dairy products such as cheese or yogurt without discomfort. This is because these foods are made using fermentation processes that break down much of the lactose in the milk. This makes it easier to digest.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include nausea, cramps, gas, bloating, or diarrhea within 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming milk or dairy products. The severity of symptoms varies, depending on the amount of lactose an individual person can tolerate. Some people may be sensitive to extremely small amounts of lactose-containing foods while others can eat larger amounts before they notice any symptoms.

Diagnosis may be confirmed if symptoms resolve following the elimination of lactose from the diet. It is important to note that stomach pain and bloating are common symptoms that could also result due to overeating, malabsorption, infections, medications and other illnesses. Other conditions that may produce similar symptoms include irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease. A Hydrogen Breath Test may help determine whether you have lactose intolerance or your symptoms are caused by something else.

Types of Lactose Intolerance:

  1. Primary lactose intolerance: It is the most common type and is caused by a decrease in lactase production with age. As such, it is normal to lose the ability to absorb lactose over time.

  2. Secondary lactose intolerance: It develops as a result of another condition that affects the small intestine. This is because inflammation in the wall of the gut may lead to a temporary decline in lactase production.

  3. Congenital lactose intolerance: Some newborns are born with this condition that lasts lifelong. These infants are unable to nurse due to the lactose content of breast milk. This form of lactose intolerance results in severe diarrhea. If affected infants are not given a lactose-free infant formula, they may develop severe dehydration and weight loss.

  4. Developmental lactose intolerance: It is typically seen only in premature babies, who are born before their digestive system is fully developed. It causes symptoms like digestive distress. This condition usually resolves on its own as the baby grows. However, until then the infant may need a lactose-free formula to replace breast milk.

People with lactose intolerance may need to reduce or eliminate their dairy intake, potentially depriving them of key nutrients like calcium. There are many ways to get enough calcium without consuming dairy. Plant-based almond milk, soy milk, coconut milk, oat milk and cashew milk, are all naturally lactose-free. It is important to stick with unsweetened varieties and avoid added sugars.

You can, in addition, choose from non-dairy milk options that are fortified with calcium. Calcium-fortified foods, canned fish with bones, and dark leafy greens also provide calcium. Nuts and seeds, oranges and tofu are rich in calcium. Calcium is an important mineral that is easy to obtain through the diet. Aim to consume 2 or 3 servings of plant-based calcium per day.

About the Author: Preetha Sanjeev has teaching experience of over 15years and has completed her Kindergarten & Montessori Teachers Training. She also holds the Cambridge International Diploma for Teachers and Trainers. Preetha has a passion for fitness and nutrition and holds multiple certifications in both. She is a qualified pre & postnatal yoga instructor, with advanced certification as a yoga instructor for children. Her understanding of the subject matter and easy writing skills make her an invaluable part of the Juvenate Team. For more information about us, please visit us at

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