September 27, 2007

Simply Said: Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance occurs when our bodies are unable to digest lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in dairy.

The digestion of lactose falls under the responsibility of an enzyme called lactase, which breaks up lactose into two simple sugars – glucose and galactose.

These two sugars then travel through our digestive systems without problems.

However, if someone’s body does not produce enough lactase, lactose charges full-steam ahead… until it reaches the gut. Then, it just sits there, patiently waiting for lactase to come break it down so it can continue its travels.

Except lactase never arrives, so lactose is instead feverishly eaten up by bacteria in our gut, thereby causing gas, bloating, stomach cramps, and in some cases even diarrhea.

Lactose intolerance is mainly seen in Asian, Native American, Latin American, and African American populations.

Interestingly enough, regardless of your racial makeup, lactose intolerance becomes a more likely complication with each passing decade.

Turns out that as we age, our bodies produce less lactase.

The best way to know what you have for sure is simply by getting tested. While you can do this by undergoing an endoscopy, there is a much less invasive way – a breath test!

If your body is successfully breaking down lactose, you wouldn’t have much hydrogen present in your breath. However, if lactose is fermenting in your gut, its levels will certainly be detectable.

So what to do if you’re lacking lactase?

For starters, never eat dairy products on an empty stomach or by themselves.

You might also want to try lactose-free milk or take a lactase enzyme supplement before having dairy products.

Eat your bacteria. That’s right! If you’re having yogurt, aim for those with live cultures, which will aid digestion.

Play hard to get. Hard cheeses contain less lactose than soft varieties, so a Swiss cheese sandwich would go over better than a caprese salad with mozarella.

Don’t gloss over food labels. Just because a food doesn’t fall under the “dairy” umbrella does not mean it is 100% safe.

The biggest trap? An ingredient known as whey, which is derived from milk and contains lactose.

Food shouldn't be your only concern, either.

About a quarter of prescription drugs contain lactose, as do the majority of birth control pills.

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