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Lactose Intolerance: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Diagnosis and Treatment

Oct 17, 2023

Lactose Intolerance: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Diagnosis and Treatment

People with lactose intolerance are unable to completely digest lactose, the sugar in milk. People get diarrhea, gas, and bloating as a result of eating dairy products. Although the condition, also known as lactose malabsorption, is normally not dangerous, some people may have uncomfortable symptoms.

The enzyme lactase, which is made in the small intestine, is typically insufficient, resulting in lactose intolerance. You can still digest dairy products even with low lactase levels. However, if your levels are too low, you become lactose intolerant and experience symptoms after consuming dairy products.

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Causes Of Lactose Intolerance

You acquire lactose intolerance when your small intestine is unable to produce enough lactase, an enzyme necessary to break down lactose.

Normally, lactase breaks down milk sugar into glucose and galactose, two simple sugars absorbed into the bloodstream through the gastrointestinal mucosa.

If you don't have the enzyme lactase, lactose from your meal enters your colon rather than being digested and absorbed. Regular bacteria and undigested lactose interact in the gut to cause the symptoms and signs of lactose intolerance.

There are three different types of lactose intolerance. Each type's underlying lactase deficiency is caused by distinct factors.

Primary intolerance to lactose

All affected people have the most prevalent kind of primary lactose intolerance, which is present from birth. When children proceed from milk to other foods, the amount of lactase they produce typically decreases, but it usually remains high enough to digest the amount of dairy in an average adult diet. 

When a person has primary lactose intolerance, lactase production significantly decreases by the time they reach adulthood, making it difficult to digest milk products.

Secondary intolerance to lactose

Due to an infection, an accident, or small intestinal surgery, your small intestine's ability to produce lactase is reduced, which leads to this type of lactose intolerance. Secondary lactose intolerance has been associated with several diseases, including intestinal infections, celiac disease, bacterial overgrowth, and Crohn's disease.

Congenital or developmental lactose intolerance

Lactase deficiency can cause lactose intolerance in infants, which is uncommon but not impossible. For a child to be affected by this disorder, both the mother and the father must pass on the same gene mutation because it is passed in an autosomal recessive way from one generation to the next. Premature babies may eventually become lactose intolerant because of low amounts of lactase.

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Symptoms Of Lactose Intolerance

The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance frequently appear between 30 minutes and two hours after consuming food or drinking beverages that contain lactose. Typical symptoms and warning signs include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Risk Factors of Lactose Intolerance

The following variables may make you or your child more vulnerable to lactose intolerance:

  • Increasing age: The typical onset of lactose intolerance occurs in adulthood.
  • Ethnicity: The majority of people who are lactose intolerant are of African, Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian origin.
  • Birth before term: Premature infants may have lower levels of lactase because lactase-producing cells in the small intestine don't begin to proliferate until late in the third trimester.
  • Small intestinal disorders: In addition to other small intestine disorders, bacterial overgrowth, celiac disease, and Crohn's disease can also result in lactose intolerance.
  • Certain cancer treatments: Suppose you have undergone radiation treatment for stomach cancer or have a family history of lactose intolerance, your risk increases.

Diagnosis  Of Lactose Intolerance

Your physician could suspect lactose intolerance in light of your symptoms and how you respond to cutting back on dairy in your diet. Your doctor may use one or more of the procedures listed below to confirm the diagnosis:

  • Hydrogen breath test: After you take a beverage with a lot of lactose, your doctor will examine the amount of hydrogen in your breath regularly. You may not be properly absorbing and digesting lactose if you are exhaling excessive hydrogen.
  • Lactose tolerance test: Two hours after ingesting a high-lactose beverage, you will have blood tests done to evaluate the amount of glucose in your blood. Your body isn't correctly metabolizing and absorbing the sugar if your blood sugar doesn't rise.

Treatment  Of Lactose Intolerance

It may take months to fully recover the body's ability to digest lactose in those whose underlying disease is the cause of their lactose intolerance. By following a low-lactose diet, you might be able to avoid the symptoms of lactose intolerance for other reasons.

To reduce your intake of lactose:

  • Milk and other dairy products should be consumed in limit.
  • You should consume small amounts of dairy products in each of your daily meals.
  • Ice cream and milk both free of lactose should be consumed.
  • Use a liquid or powdered lactase enzyme to dissolve the lactose in milk.

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