From sudden bloating to abdominal cramps, the reactions that come with lactose intolerance can range from uncomfortable to painful. However, there are some strategies that can help prevent the effects and alleviate the symptoms.
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Read more: Lactic Acid & Lactose Intolerance
Cause of Lactose Issues
Lactose is a type of natural carbohydrate found in dairy products, and most people have a specific enzyme, called lactase, that is used to digest the lactose properly, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But if your body has low lactase levels, the result can be non-digested lactose making its way through your small intestine, and that can cause uncomfortable reactions.
"This will cause extra gas to form, resulting in pressure," says Colleen Christensen, RDN, a registered dietitian/nutritionist in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "Often, that can be painful and include abdominal cramping, bloating, nausea, gas and sometimes diarrhea."
Lactose intolerance can be diagnosed with a type of breath test that measures hydrogen in the body, which increases as a result of digestive issues from malabsorption of lactose. You can also do an at-home test as well, the Cleveland Clinic suggests, which involves simply avoiding foods containing lactose for a few weeks and then re-introducing them into your diet. If your symptoms come back immediately, it's likely caused by the lactose.
Dairy Without Discomfort
If you do turn out to be lactose intolerant, that doesn't mean you need to eliminate all dairy products, Christensen says. You may even be able to have items with lactose — like milk, soft cheeses, butter and ice cream — if you take time to understand your threshold.
"There may be a certain amount you can tolerate before you have discomfort," she says. "It varies by individual. Also, if you've been off these foods for a while, you may be able to adjust your digestive system to accepting them again. By introducing them slowly, and having smaller amounts, you can increase the amount gradually without symptoms."
Another option is to make up for the shortfall of lactase in your system by using a liquid or tablet form of the enzyme, the Cleveland Clinic notes. Products like Lactaid and Dairy Ease as well as various generic versions of lactase enzyme — all available without a prescription — can help you digest foods containing lactose. You simply put a few drops of liquid in your milk or chew a tablet before eating.
You can also limit your lactose amount by choosing low-lactose dairy and alternatives, suggests Christensen. For example, the longer a cheese ages, the less lactose it has, she points out. That means if you stick to aged cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan, you shouldn't have symptoms related to lactose intolerance.
Taking preventive measures can usually limit any discomfort caused by lactose intolerance, but if you are experiencing problems, several types of over-the-counter remedies may be helpful, the Cleveland Clinic suggests. Choose remedies based on your symptoms.
For example, if gas and bloating seem to be your main issues, choose a product that contains simethicone — found in brands like Mylanta and Maalox — which can join gas bubbles together in the stomach so they're burped up more easily, the Cleveland Clinic says. If odor from being gassy is a symptom, try bismuth subsalicylate, like Pepto-Bismol, to reduce the smell, Cleveland Clinic says.
Read more: The 9 Worst Foods for Bloating
For a longer-term solution, the Mayo Clinic suggests trying probiotics, which are available in capsule form as supplements or in live cultures in some yogurts. Probiotics are living organisms in your digestive system that help you maintain gut health. While eating more, or taking them as supplements, won't change your lactase level, they have been used for gastrointestinal conditions like diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, Mayo Clinic reports.
If your symptoms are getting worse, though, or are accompanied by more serious concerns like fever, weakness, fatigue or diarrhea that is not improving, consider making an appointment with your doctor. To prepare, the Mayo Clinic suggests writing down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that seem unrelated to your lactose intolerance.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.