If you're lactose intolerant, lactase pills may help you enjoy an occasional ice cream cone or the cheese on a charcuterie board. The lactase enzyme in the pill makes this possible by aiding in the digestion of dairy products. Side effects aren't likely, but can include allergic reactions.
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What’s Lactose Intolerance?
A fairly common condition, lactose intolerance affects an estimated 36 percent of Americans to some degree, according to the Cleveland Clinic. You'll likely know if you have it: Those who are lactose intolerant can experience uncomfortable symptoms such as nausea, cramps, gas, bloating or diarrhea typically 30 minutes to 2 hours after drinking milk or eating dairy products, notes the Cleveland Clinic. Darting to the bathroom may become a habit.
The condition occurs when your small intestine isn't producing enough of a lactase enzyme to digest lactose, a milk sugar, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But, those who are lactose intolerant can limit uncomfortable symptoms in several ways, including choosing smaller portions of dairy or eating lactose-reduced or lactose-free products, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Read more: How Is Lactose-Free Milk Made?
All About Lactase Pills
Another way to combat digestive upset from dairy is to take over-the-counter drops or tablets that contain lactase enzymes — like Dairy Ease or Lactaid Fast Act — as they may help your body break down lactose.
In order for these products to work, you should take lactase enzyme pills immediately before consuming dairy products, says Dina Khader, MS, RD, a dietitian based in Mount Kisco, New York. You can also add the drops to a carton of milk, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
But, as the Mayo Clinic cautions, not everyone who is lactose intolerant will experience the benefits of lactase enzymes. Also, lactose intolerance can affect people differently, in terms of the severity of symptoms, depending on how much lactase your body produces on its own, notes Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Another thing to know is that some people may experience allergic reactions to lactase enzyme supplements, Khader says. While rare, anaphylaxis, which is a serious and life-threatening allergic reaction that occurs when your immune system overreacts to an allergen, is the most extreme side effect, but other allergic reactions could include headaches and diarrhea, she says.
What to Know and Do
Most people who are lactose intolerant can enjoy small amounts of dairy products without experiencing symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic, and it may be possible to build up tolerance to some dairy products.
Lactose intolerance affects individuals differently, and some people may be able to better tolerate full-fat dairy products, like whole milk and cheeses, easier than reduced or no-fat dairy products, the Mayo Clinic says. You'll have to try things out and see how you feel.
Aged cheeses, which tend to be harder in texture and include parmesan, Swiss and cheddar, have the lowest lactose content, Khader says. Soft cheeses like cottage cheese, mozzarella and camembert have higher lactose content, she says.
Also, some people who are lactose intolerant are still able to eat cultured milk products, such as yogurt, without experiencing symptoms because the bacteria used in the culturing process can break down lactose, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you're lactose intolerant, it's important to pay attention to labels and know which foods may have lactose in them, according to Go Dairy Free. Some products that are labeled "nondairy," like coffee creamers, might still contain lactose if they contain ingredients derived from milk.
Be aware, too, that certain ingredients may have dairy components, including whey, curds, milk byproducts, sodium caseinate, dry milk solids and nonfat dry milk powder — among a long list of products cited by Go Dairy Free as having hidden dairy.