Lactose Intolerance Symptoms You Shouldn't Overlook
Have you ever felt bloated or gassy after consuming your favorite ice cream or after eating a bowl of cereal with milk for breakfast? These might be lactose intolerance symptoms, but don’t worry, we can tell you all about what it is and how you can manage it!
- Lactose intolerance is a very common condition, and essentially just refers to the inability for one’s digestive system to properly digest lactose due to a lack of lactase enzymes
- Lactose intolerance symptoms are very common symptoms and it can be easy to confused lactose intolerance with a milk allergy, thus it is important to get a proper diagnosis of symptoms because the two conditions are actually completely different
- There are many dairy substitutes for popular dairy products which can be helpful to those who are lactose intolerant and wish to avoid consuming dairy products which contain lactose
There is a lot of dense information to unpack and understand with lactose intolerance, but all of it is important to know (I promise). Let’s get into learning more about this condition and how it can be managed!
What is Lactose Intolerance?
You might be wondering what exactly is lactose? Lactose is actually a natural sugar that is found in the milk of most mammals, including humans. An enzyme, called lactase, is supposedly responsible for breaking down lactose for digestion. However, when a person does not produce enough lactase, their body does not digest lactose properly and will begin to display lactose intolerance symptoms.
When we are young, our bodies are used to producing a lot of lactase in order to properly digest breast milk from our mothers, however as we grow older and start to drink less milk, our bodies respond accordingly and start to produce less lactase as there is no longer as much of a need for it. Research has shown that by adulthood, about 70% of individuals do not produce sufficient lactase to properly digest lactose in dairy products, leading to lactose intolerance symptoms after they consume dairy (1). About 30 million Americans have lactose intolerance by the age of 20, and it is more commonly seen in people with Asian, African, or Native American heritage (3).
How is an Intolerance Different from an Allergy?
It is actually very easy to confuse a milk allergy with lactose intolerance. Studies have reported that up to 5% of people are allergic to cow milk, and it is more commonly seen in children (1). Despite commonly occurring simultaneously, a milk allergy and lactose intolerance are completely different and are not related at all. How they are caused and how they affect your body are very different.
While lactose intolerance involves the digestive system, a dairy allergy involves the immune system. Rather than lacking lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose, your body overreacts to the proteins in dairy products as if they are dangerous, foreign substances to your body, much like any other allergy. The substances released as a result of this overreaction causes an allergic reaction. Common milk allergy symptoms are rash, eczema, asthma, anaphylaxis, etc. A milk allergy can actually be life threatening, so it is important to get an accurate diagnosis of symptoms, especially in young children.
Symptoms + Testing
As a result of lactose malabsorption, there are some common lactose intolerance symptoms which lactose intolerant people will display after consuming dairy, including:
- Stomach pain or cramps
- Increased gas
- Other symptoms include headaches, fatigue, muscle and/or joint pain, mouth ulcers, etc.
The thing about lactose intolerance symptoms is that they are very common and have many other possible causes. Because of this, it is important to diagnose properly to check if the symptoms are caused by lactose intolerance or by something else. If you get any of these symptoms within 30 minutes to 2 hours after consuming dairy products, it might be a good idea for you to consult your doctor.
Lactose intolerance is often diagnosed using a hydrogen breath test conducted by a healthcare professional. This test can help to determine whether symptoms are truly caused by lactose malabsorption or by a different issue. Other tests for lactose intolerance include the lactose intolerance test, as well as the stool acidity test. The presence of lactose intolerance symptoms often define lactose intolerance in a person and its severity. Additionally, how sensitive the person is to the effects of lactose malabsorption and the amount of lactose ingested will influence the person’s reaction to dairy.
Lactose intolerance can be quite easily managed, however it is not curable. A common way to manage lactose intolerance is to restrict one’s diet or avoid high-lactose products such as milk, cheese, or ice cream. Lactose-reduced dairy products and other dairy substitutes are also great alternatives.
As a lactose intolerant person myself, I prefer to take lactase enzyme supplements when eating dairy products to help my digestive system digest the lactose. This method is extremely convenient and helps to reduce, or even eliminate, lactose intolerance symptoms. Even when you are out, you can just carry around a couple lactase pills with you and take it whenever you need it!
There are many different alternatives for different types of dairy products. Here are a few possible substitutes for popular dairy products:
1. Milk alternatives
There are plenty of options to replace cow milk. Almond, soy, and coconut milk are all very popular and easily accessible milk substitutes for those who are lactose intolerant.
2. Cheese alternatives
For both soft and hard cheeses, tofu can be a creative replacement for texture in certain recipes. There are also many plant-based alternatives available in health food stores, which are usually made with soy or coconut milk.
3. Butter alternatives
Healthy and natural butter alternatives for lactose intolerance include coconut oil, olive oil, and also avocados.
4. Yogurt alternatives
Many manufacturers of store-bought yogurts actually create alternatives to dairy yogurt using cultured soy or coconut milk instead of normal cow milk. You could also opt to produce your own dairy-free yogurt with a yogurt-making kit.
5. Ice cream alternatives
There are countless dairy-free ice cream products available in the market. These are typically made using nut milks. Additionally, dairy-free fruit-based sorbets are another popular substitute for ice cream.
Overall, the severity of lactose intolerance symptoms will vary person to person, so it is important to know your own limits and how much dairy works for you personally. If you do find yourself showing lactose intolerance symptoms after consuming dairy products and suspect that you may have lactose intolerance, I do suggest you consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis (can’t hurt to know for sure!). There is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to lactose intolerance. It is really easy to manage, plus you get to learn more about yourself and your own body. Keep slaying it out there my fellow lactose intolerant friends!
Written by Jessica Li