Treating Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a condition in which people are unable to completely digest lactose. Lactose is the sugar that is found in milk. Being lactose intolerant causes a number of embarrassing and uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea after eating or drinking dairy products. Lactose intolerance may also be known as lactose malabsorption. There are no serious complications associated with the condition and the symptoms can be managed. There are millions of people in the United States who have some degree of lactose intolerance.



Why do some people develop lactose intolerance? Lactose intolerance is caused by a lactase deficiency. Lactase is an enzyme that is produced in the small intestine. The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance usually start about thirty minutes to two hours after eating or drinking dairy products that contain lactose. The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance include gas, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting (not always), and abdominal cramps.

There are a number of risk factors that can increase your risk of developing lactose intolerance. The risk factors that increase your risk of developing lactose intolerance include: 

  • Race/Ethnicity. Lactose intolerance is most common in people of African, Asian, Hispanic and American Indian descent.
  • Age. Adults are most likely to develop lactose intolerance. It is much less common among young children and babies.
  • Certain treatments for cancer. You have an increased risk for lactose intolerance if you have had radiation therapy in your abdomen or have intestinal complications from chemotherapy.
  • Premature birth. Prematurely born babies may have lower levels of lactase due to the small intestine not developing lactase-producing cells until a later trimester.
  • Small intestine diseases. Small intestine problems that can cause lactose intolerance include bacterial overgrowth, celiac disease and Crohn's disease.

In order to diagnose lactose intolerance, your doctor may do a series of tests. These tests include a lactose intolerance test, a hydrogen breath test, and a stool acidity test. Unfortunately, there is no way to treat lactose intolerance by raising the amount of lactase that is produced. However, there are ways to manage the condition’s symptoms that cause discomfort. Treating lactose intolerance may include avoiding milk and other dairy products, using lactase supplements, and drinking lactose-free milk.

Quick Facts About Lactose Intolerance:

  1. Lactose is a carbohydrate composed of two sugar units, glucose and galactose.  It is thesugar found naturally in milk and milk products. In order for lactose to be digested and absorbed in the small intestine, the two sugar units must be separated from each other.
  2. The enzyme lactase is needed to separate glucose and galactose.
  3. Many people either have low levels or lack the enzyme lactase for digestion of lactose, resulting in annoying symptoms.
  4. Symptoms generally occur within 30 minutes to two hours after consuming foods containing lactose and include abdominal pain/cramping, bloating, excess gas, nausea and diarrhea.
  5. Lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy.  People with a milk allergy need to avoid dairy foods to avoid a serious reaction.  Lactose intolerance is a sensitivity to lactose and the symptoms are not life-threatening.

Overview of Treatment Options:

  • Limit amount of milk products in your diet
  • Eat or drink milk products along with other foods
  • Spread consumption of milk or milk products throughout the day
  • Eat products with reduce lactose
  • Use lactase products
  • Eat yogurt with live and active cultures