Lactose intolerance symptoms can be treated much like abdominal discomfort that stems from other causes. However, lactose intolerance stomach pain is best managed by addressing the issue before eating dairy products.
Exercise and herbal teas made with ginger, chamomile, fennel seeds and ginger can help to lesson abdominal pain from lactose intolerance. Symptoms can be prevented by avoiding dairy foods, supplementing with lactase or consuming probiotics.
Breaking Down Lactose
Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk, and products made from milk such as cheese, ice cream and butter. Not all dairy products contain the same amount of lactose. Buttermilk, yogurt and aged cheese are lower in lactose than milk, cream and fresh cheeses.
Enzymes produced in the small intestine react with certain foods to help break down molecules for the absorption of nutrients in the body. A deficiency in an enzyme prevents absorption of the molecules it acts upon.
People who lack or are deficient in the enzyme lactase cannot properly digest foods containing lactose. Undigested molecules can lead to abdominal symptoms such as gas and cramping.
Degrees of Lactose Intolerance
According to MedlinePlus, infants are born with the ability to produce lactase and digest lactose in breastmilk. Many people stop producing lactase as they age and no longer need milk in their diet. People who no longer produce lactase are truly lactose intolerant and cannot properly digest any dairy products.
Some people retain the ability to produce lactase, but they still cannot effectively digest or absorb lactose, especially in large quantities. In these individuals, maldigestion of lactose causes the same symptoms as lactose intolerance. They can consume small amounts of dairy foods before the symptoms of lactose intolerance take effect, according to a May 2016 study published in the Nutrition Journal.
Testing for Lactose Intolerance
The inability to digest lactose can be determined by assessing a blood sample, stool sample or a breath test. The stool test is normally performed on younger patients and analyzes a stool sample for the presence of acids due to undigested lactose.
The blood and breath tests start with drinking a high-lactose liquid. Blood glucose levels normally rise after consuming lactose, but will remain steady in a person whose body is not digesting lactose. The breath test measures the amount of hydrogen given off by fermenting lactose in the colon.
People who experience stomach pain after eating dairy products should see a doctor to determine if they are lactose intolerant. Stomach pain associated with dairy consumption could indicate a milk allergy, rather than intolerance, and requires a separate diagnosis.
Lactose Intolerance Symptoms
Undigested lactose in the small intestine causes symptoms of digestive discomfort. Symptoms do not occur immediately after eating but are delayed until food has passed into the small intestine, approximately a half hour to two hours after consuming dairy products. Symptoms aren't serious but can be unpleasant.
Without the lactase enzyme to break lactose into the simpler sugar molecules of glucose and galactose, the larger lactose molecule can't be absorbed by the small intestine. Bacteria in the gut ferment the undigested lactose molecules, which releases gas as a byproduct. Gas in the small intestine and colon may cause several symptoms including:
- Sharp abdominal pain
- Abdominal cramps
The presence of undigested lactose in the gut can also increase the amount of water that moves into the colon. As a result, people with lactose intolerance may experience diarrhea after eating or drinking dairy foods.
Read more: Ice Cream and Diarrhea
Lactose Intolerance Treatment After Eating
Once a lactose-challenged person has consumed milk or a milk-based food without taking a lactase supplement, symptoms are likely inevitable. Symptoms of gas pain and bloating can be lessened by physical activity, which helps to dislodge excess gas from the body. Walking, stretching and yoga can encourage gas to be passed, which will alleviate some of the pain.
Other home remedies for lactose intolerance discomfort include drinking herbal teas that help to relieve gas and cramping. Teas made from lemon balm, chamomile or fennel seeds can help with excess gas trapped in the intestine as well as flatulence.
Ginger tea can help alleviate gas, bloating and abdominal cramps. Peppermint tea can speed up the digestive process, which can help pass stool more quickly and rid to gut of excess gas.
Read more: 4 Exercises and Yoga Poses for Gas Relief
Preventing Lactose Intolerance Symptoms
The Mayo Clinic notes that lactose intolerance can be effectively managed by avoiding the consumption of milk and dairy products. For many people, taking a lactase supplement in pill or tablet form at the time of consumption can prevent symptoms from occurring, because the supplement helps to break down lactose in the small intestine. Both avoidance and supplementation require addressing the issue prior to eating or drinking lactose-containing foods.
Choosing lactose-free or lower-lactose food options are easier to digest, which can lessen or eliminate the need for lactose intolerance pain relief. Cheeses such as cheddar, Parmesan, provolone and Swiss are low in lactose. Lactose-free and lactase-enhanced milk products available in grocery stores also help consumers avoid lactose intolerance symptoms.
Substituting dairy-free products for milk-based foods can also eliminate the potential for abdominal discomfort. Nondairy beverages, cheeses, yogurt and ice cream made from soy, almond, coconut and other plant products are safe to consume.
Probiotics for Managing Lactose Intolerance
Gut-friendly bacteria known as probiotics— such as those found in yogurt— may be helpful for digesting lactose. The 2016 Nutrition Journal study found that a daily dose of a specific strain of Lactobacillus acidopholus called DDS-1 can lessen symptoms of abdominal discomfort in people with lactose intolerance.
A test group was given a dose of the bacteria once daily for four weeks and asked to score their symptoms for six hours after consuming lactase. Scored symptoms included cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, flatulence and audible bowel sounds. The group that received DDS-1 supplements reported reduced severity in all symptoms compared with the placebo group.
Yogurt and other fermented milk products are generally easier to digest than nonfermented diary foods. The Lactobacillus acidopholus bacteria in cultured yogurt and probiotic supplements produces lactase in the gut, according to the Nutrition Journal study. The lactase that results from consuming this bacteria can help people with lactose intolerance better digest dairy foods without unpleasant side effects.
Is This an Emergency?
- MedlinePlus: “Lactose Intolerance”
- Mayo Clinic: “Lactose Intolerance: Symptoms and Causes”
- Nutrition Journal: “The Effects of the DDS-1 Strain of Lactobacillus on Symptomatic Relief for Lactose Intolerance: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Clinical Trial”
- Mayo Clinic: “Lactose Intolerance: Diagnosis and Treatment”