Lactose is the primary sugar found in milk. In order to be digested, lactose must be broken down into two smaller sugar molecules: glucose and galactose. These two sugar molecules are then absorbed from the intestine into the bloodstream to be taken up by the cells and used for energy (1). The enzyme that splits lactose into glucose and galactose is called lactase. When your body does not produce enough lactase, it cannot properly digest the lactose you consume.
Lactose is also found in human milk where babies can easily digest it since they produce sufficient amount of lactase. When a child is weaned off of breast milk, the digestive system gradually adapts to other foods and produces considerably less lactase(2). In rare cases, a baby could be born without the lactase enzyme which would make him unable to properly digest his mother’s milk, this condition is called congenital lactase deficiency. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 30 million Americans have some degree of lactose intolerance by age 20 (3). As we age, our small intestine makes less lactase which means that we can start having lactose intolerance symptoms even if we had no issues with consuming dairy products before.
If you experience symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, nausea, abdominal cramps, migraine or diarrhea – which often occurs within 2 hours of ingesting lactose – you might be lactose intolerant. A common test to measure the absorption of lactose into the digestive system is the hydrogen breath test which measures the amount of hydrogen in the breath. A person who is lactose intolerant will have a higher level of hydrogen in the breath which could indicate a faulty digestion of lactose.
The only true cure for someone who is lactose intolerant is to completely avoid consuming lactose. Whey protein powders can be replaced by plant-based protein powders such as the Vegan Pro, milk can be replaced by plant-based substitutes such as almond, coconut, rice or soy milk and non-dairy cheeses are also available at most grocery stores.
If you suspect to have an intolerance to lactose my recommendation would be to see a qualified health care professional who will perform tests such as the hydrogen breath. You can still live a happy lactose-free life by substituting dairy products with plant-based ones, they are becoming more available at grocery stores and when eating out.
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