Lactose intolerance affects 30 to 50 million people in the United States, according to 2013 information reported by the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center website. It is caused by the lack of a specific enzyme -- known as lactase -- that is normally found in the small intestine. Without the enzyme, it is impossible to properly digest lactose, a sugar found in milk. Those with a lactose intolerance can experience discomfort, including abdominal cramping, bloating, gas, nausea and diarrhea. Avoiding any food that contains lactose is the best way to stop discomfort, but other options are also available. If you are lactose intolerant, or suspect you might be, talk to your doctor about the best choices for you.
Avoid Foods with Lactose
Most products made from cow's milk -- dairy products -- contain lactose, so avoiding them can usually help prevent discomfort. However, talk to your doctor before you go completely dairy free, as he might need to recommend a supplement or specific food choices so you get enough calcium and other valuable nutrients found in dairy foods. You may also want to try a trial-and-error process to determine which products cause problems for you, as you may be able to tolerate some dairy products better than others. Yogurts and some cheeses, for example, contain very little lactose, so eating them might not cause any problems for you. Reading food labels is important, as many foods that you might not suspect contain lactose, either alone or in a milk product, actually do. For example, processed meats, potato chips, processed breakfast cereals and even some medications can contain lactose.
If you must have dairy products in your life, one possible solution is lactose-free and lactose-reduced milk and milk products. Lactose-free milk, for example, is essentially the same as regular milk, except that is has the lactase enzyme added to it. However, this gives it a slightly sweeter taste than regular milk. Other products that contain soy, rice or almond milk instead of cow's milk might also be viable alternatives, as they don't naturally contain lactose. Talk to your doctor about the best alternatives for you.
Supplements are available that contain the enzyme lactase. You can take these before a meal to help digest any lactose that's in the dairy product and prevent discomfort. They typically come in pill, tablet or liquid forms. Supplements that contain simethicone can help reduce the size of gas bubbles and speed their exit out your intestines, which can help prevent the discomfort caused by gas and bloating. Taking probiotics -- different strains of "friendly" bacteria that can benefit the digestive tract -- may also be helpful, but not all strains of probiotics relieve the discomfort caused by lactose intolerance. Talk to a qualified health professional about which probiotics would work best for you.
Taking preventive measures can usually prevent any discomfort caused by lactose intolerance, but if the discomfort of diarrhea is a problem, taking an over-the-counter antidiarrheal that contains either loperamide, bismuth sub-salicylate or attapulgite may help. Diarrhea from lactose intolerance is different than the diarrhea you get when you are ill or have an infection. In the case of illness, diarrhea is your body's way of getting rid of toxins, so it is often recommended to let it run its course. However, the diarrhea caused by lactose intolerance is due to improper digestion. Therefore, you should take antidiarrheals with caution and talk to a qualified pharmacist before using one. If you continue to experience discomfort -- or any other symptoms typical of lactose intolerance, even after taking preventive measures or over-the-counter medications, talk to your doctor to rule out another underlying digestive problem.
Is This an Emergency?
- The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Lactose Intolerance
- Columbia University Go Ask Alice!: Lactose Intolerance
- Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre: Lactose Intolerance
- MedlinePlus: Simethicone
- The Journal of Family Practic: Do Probiotics Reduce Adult Lactose Intolerance? A Systematic Review.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Diarrhea