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How to find out if you’re lactose intolerant and what to do about it

Almost everyone has an intolerance or an allergy to one type of food or another. Sometimes the symptoms of the intolerance are minimal or we’re so used to them that we might consider the way we feel to be our natural state and that this is how we are supposed to be feeling.

Lactose is a type of sugar mainly found in milk and dairy products. Lactose intolerance is a common digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose. Symptoms relating to lactose intolerance usually develop within a few hour of consuming food or drink that contains lactose. Many people can tolerate drinking a small glass of milk whilst others can experience tummy ache and other accompanying side effects (such as wind, diarrhea, boated tummy, stomach cramps, stomach rumbling and feeling sick) in their digestive system. What causes the intolerance is an inability to digest or breakdown the lactose brought about by a lack of an enzyme called lactase which is produced in the small intestine. People with this condition don’t produce enough lactase, so lactose is stuck in the digestive system where it is fermented by bacteria. This leads to the production of various gases, which bring about the symptoms mentioned above.

Lack of lactase is something that you are either born with or gradually develop with age and the result is that lactose is not digested at all or not digested properly.

The way to recognise whether or not you’re lactose intolerant really depends on your level of sensitivity and the amount of lactose in the food stuff that you consume. If you have severe reactions immediately after consuming milk or dairy product you can be fairly certain that you suffer from lactose intolerance. Remember that lactose intolerance can appear ‘out of nowhere’ at

any time and without any apparent reason. If your symptoms are not severe, the best way to test for an intolerance is by way of elimination. Which means that initially you remove from your diet everything that might contain the suspected culprit and after a certain period of time you reintroduce the suspicious items back into your diet slowly-slowly and in a controlled manner. If you get a reaction of re-experience the symptoms you are likely to be intolerant. You may also wish to confirm this with a lab test. These include:

  • The lactose intolerance test gauges your body's reaction to a liquid that contains high levels of lactose. Two hours after drinking the liquid, you'll undergo blood tests to measure the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. If your glucose level doesn't rise, it means your body isn't properly digesting and absorbing the lactose-filled drink.

  • Hydrogen breath test. This test also requires you to drink a liquid that contains high levels of lactose. Then your doctor measures the amount of hydrogen in your breath at regular intervals. Normally, very little hydrogen is detectable. However, if your body doesn't digest the lactose, it will ferment in the colon, releasing hydrogen and other gases, which are absorbed by your intestines and eventually exhaled. Larger than normal amounts of exhaled hydrogen measured during a breath test indicate that you aren't fully digesting and absorbing lactose.

  • Stool acidity test. For infants and children who can't undergo other tests, a stool acidity test may be used. The fermenting of undigested lactose creates lactic acid and other acids that can be detected in a stool sample.

Many people confuse between having an intolerance and having an allergy. The difference is very significant. Some of the symptoms can be similar but they can also be very severe including problems breathing, skin rash or shock, which can result in death. This type of allergy is more common with infants than with adults. In any event, it is important to establish why you cannot digest lactose.

If you are lactose intolerant you can avoid the symptoms by:

  • Taste-test a small amount of the product and see how your body reacts

  • Break down your dairy consumption to small portions and consume them together with other food stuff (or example yogurt with fruit). This way the body will have sufficient time to break down and digest the lactose.

  • Give preference to consuming fermented dairy products which contain a reduced amount of lactose.

  • Pay attention to processed food that might contain lactose (such as cereals, margarine etc.)

  • Some medications contain lactose. So read the guidance note that comes with the medication or consult your chemist.

Last but not least: there are supplements that contain lactase and are intended to reduce the affect of lactose intolerance.

As ever, if you need more advice or have any questions, please feel free to contact me. And it goes without saying that if you find the above information helpful or you know someone who may benefit from it, please share.

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