Lactose intolerance is characterized as the inability to properly digest lactose. Lactose meanwhile is the type of sugar that is predominantly found in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt. But what exactly is lactose intolerance and how do you know if you have it?
Lactose intolerance is actually incredibly common. In fact, it’s more common to be lactose intolerant than it is not to be. 60% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant and that suggests that it is actually more ‘normal’ to be unable to drink milk.
However, it’s also worth mentioning that this statistic includes 95% of the Asian population and 75% of African Americans. Among Caucasian Americans, lactose intolerance is much less common and actually only affects 10% of the population.
The reason for this discrepancy may be to do with genetics and it’s actually thought by some that a tolerance to lactose is one of the most recent evolutionary traits which can be traced back to Europe.
Either way, those who suffer with lactose intolerance lose the ability to produce lactase around the age of 2-5. Lactase is an enzyme that the body uses to break down lactose and thereby digest it for use in the body.
When lactase is missing though, that lactose is not digested properly and instead it travels through the digestive system to the colon where it can sit for quite a while. What with this being milk, it can then ferment where it sits and release gases.
In turn this leads to a number of uncomfortable but temporary symptoms until the bowels are expelled!
The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance therefore are:
Normally these will develop just a few hours after consuming lactose.
The problem with lactose intolerance is that it can be hard to diagnose. Because so much of our food contains dairy (chocolate, tea and coffee, cereal, ice cream) we consume a lot throughout the day. This makes it hard for people to immediately make the connection between lactose and their symptoms.
Thus, a doctor might well misdiagnose lactose intolerance as IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). If you notice that you are having digestive problems, then it can be useful to try eating a very basic diet and then re-introducing different things back into your diet. You can also try keeping a diary and making a note of the correlation between your diet and the way you feel. Hopefully patterns will emerge and then you can identify problem foods that you need to remove.
There is no cure for lactose intolerance unfortunately. However, most people with a lactose intolerance can get by eating a limited intake of dairy and don’t have to entirely remove it from their diet.