Lactose Intolerance: What Causes It?

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Lactose intolerance is also referred to as lactase deficiency. This simply means that your body is unable to completely digest the lactose (milk sugar) that is in dairy products. Typically, it’s not a dangerous condition, however, symptoms of lactose intolerance can be quite uncomfortable.

A lactose deficiency is typically what is responsible for lactose intolerance. Lactase is an enzyme that is produced by the lining of your small intestine.

There are many people who have lower levels of lactase, but only those who have specific signs and symptoms have lactose intolerance.

You can control your symptoms of lactose intolerance by simply limiting your consumption of milk and other dairy products.

Lactose Intolerance Symptoms

Typically, the signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance will begin approximately thirty minutes to two hours after consuming foods or drinks containing lactose.

These signs and symptoms include nausea (occasionally with vomiting), gas and bloating, diarrhea, and cramps. These are usually fairly mild, but can sometimes be quite severe, depending on your level of lactose intolerance.

Causes of Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is a result of lowered levels of lactase being produced by your small intestine. The cells lining your small intestine produce an enzyme that is called lactase.

These enzymes attach to the lactose molecules in the foods and drinks you consume- breaking them down into two simpler, easier to digest, sugars- galactose and glucose. These are more easily absorbed into your bloodstream.

Without the proper amount of the lactase enzyme, the lactose in your food goes to your colon without ever being processed, where your normal intestinal bacteria begin to interact with a hit. This is where the bloating, gas, and diarrhea begin.

causes of lactose intolerance

Three Types of Lactose Intolerance

The three different types of lactose intolerance are as follows:

Primary Lactose Intolerance

This type of lactose intolerance is a result of the normal aging process. When you’re born, your body produces normal amounts of lactase.

However, after age two, once your diet begins to become much more varied and you’re relying on milk less and less, the lactase production begins to decrease. This gradual decrease could lead to symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Secondary Lactose Intolerance

This type of lactose intolerance is a result of an injury or illness. If you have an injury or illness that affects your small intestine, it could decrease its production of lactase.

This can be due to intestinal diseases such as Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or gastroenteritis. Treatment of the illness could actually work to restore your levels of lactase and therefore improve the signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance. However, this usually takes a bit of time.

Congenital Lactose Intolerance

This type of lactose intolerance occurs when a baby is born with lactose intolerance. This does happen, but it’s very rare.

It occurs due to a total lack of lactase activity. This type of intolerance is passed through the generations in a pattern of inheritance that is referred to as autosomal recessive.

This means that the mother and the father must pass on this gene in order for their child to be affected by it.

Infants that are affected by congenital lactose intolerance are even intolerant of the milk in their mother’s breast milk and experience diarrhea from birth. They must be given lactose-free formulas.

May times, premature infants will have lactose intolerance because they don’t have sufficient lactase levels. However, in babies that are healthy, this deficiency will not lead to malnutrition.

Risk Factors for Lactose Intolerance

There are a few factors that could make you more likely to develop lactose intolerance including:

  • Getting older- as you get older, lactose intolerance becomes much more common. It is quite uncommon in infants and children.
  • Ethnicity- lactose intolerance is most common in African American, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian people.
  • Premature Birth- due to the fact that lactase increases in the third trimester in a fetus, premature infants will have reduced levels of lactase, leading to lactose intolerance.
  • Small Intestine Diseases- things such as Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, or bacterial overgrowth can trigger lactose intolerance.
  • Certain Treatments for Cancer- if you have received radiation for stomach cancer or have intestinal complications due to chemo, your risk for lactose intolerance increases.

Testing for Lactose Intolerance

There are several tests that can be done to find out if you have lactose intolerance or perhaps another disorder. Some of these tests are blood glucose test, hydrogen breath test, milk exclusion test, and stool acidity test.

You can also have an intestinal biopsy performed, but these are much more invasive and are typically only done for research purposes, as it is the only test that cannot be performed in your physician’s office.

Lactose Intolerance Treatments

There are currently no treatments available to “cure” lactose intolerance. There is no way that you can boost the natural production of lactase in your small intestine.

Those who have lactose intolerance will need to find relief by limiting the amount of lactose they consume and by using special products made specifically for those who have the condition.

Home Remedies for Lactose Intolerance

Those who have lactose intolerance can actually reduce their symptoms simply by eating fewer products containing lactose.

However, most people see dairy as a great way to get important vitamins and minerals, such as calcium.

However, just because you give up dairy doesn’t mean you must give up calcium. There are many other foods that contain calcium. These include bread, juices, oranges, milk substitutes, broccoli, spinach, rhubarb, and pinto beans.

If you choose to give up dairy entirely, you must also make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D. There are many foods that contain significant amounts of vitamin D- but you can get it from yogurt, eggs, and liver.

Also, when exposed to the sun, your body naturally produces Vitamin D- except when you wear sunscreen, which is necessary to prevent skin cancer.

If you choose to consume dairy products anyway, regardless of your lactose intolerance, you should be careful. You may be able to tolerate the low-fat milk products better than the whole milk, and you may even be able to increase your tolerance by gradually introducing them into your diet.

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