What is Lactose Intolerance in Adults?
If you have bloating, gas, and stomach pain after drinking milk or eating a bowl of ice cream, you may be lactose intolerant. The condition is caused when your body rejects lactose, a certain type of sugar, in milk.
Lactose intolerance stems from your small intestine. When it doesn’t produce enough lactase, which is an enzyme that helps you digest lactose, you’ll experience physical symptoms after consuming milk. Lactase works to turn the sugar in cow’s milk into glucose and galactose, which are sugars that your body can absorb.
When you lack lactase, the sugar from milk or other dairy products can’t be absorbed into the walls of the intestinal lining. So, when the milk moves into the colon, or large intestine, the lactose interacts badly with the normal bacteria and causes discomfort in the body. Basically, instead of digesting the dairy product, your body starts to ferment it.
What are the Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance in adults isn’t harmful but it can be an uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing condition. If you suffer from this illness, about 30-minutes to two-hours after eating or drinking a milk product, you may feel varying levels of:
- Stomach cramps
These are all signs that you may have lactose intolerance. The disorder isn’t the same as a milk allergy, which can be life-threatening. People with food allergies must avoid those foods altogether. If you have lactose intolerance, you’ll likely feel worse if you consume dairy products, but you will be unlikely to end up calling 911.
Is Lactose Intolerance Common in Adults?
Infants need milk, it’s where they gather their nutrition. But even babies can occasionally be born with congenital lactase deficiency, a condition called congenital alactasia. This can cause the infant to be unable to break down the lactose found in breast milk or formula.
But even infants that consume and digest milk sugar with no problems can develop lactose intolerance later on in life. It’s common for lactose intolerance in adults to develop when the production of lactase naturally drops after infancy and even on into adulthood.
Research shows that approximately 65% of adults have a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. There seems to be a genetic component to the disorder, with people of East Asian descent experiencing the highest levels of lactose intolerance. The research also shows the disorder is common in people of Arab, Greek, Italian, Jewish, and West African descent. But only about 5% of people descended from Northern European countries experience the problem.
What are the Causes of Lactose Intolerance?
Most people stop producing lactase as they mature. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says approximately 30 to 50 million Americans suffer from lactose intolerance. They also suggest up to 75% of adult African Americans and Native Americans suffer from the disorder. Another 90% of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant.
As people age, they naturally produce less of the enzymes needed to break down milk products. That’s why adults more commonly acquire the symptoms.
While there is a genetic component to lactose intolerance, there are three types of lactose intolerance with different factors causing each:
- Primary lactose intolerance is the most common type of the illness. Most adults begin their lives with all the lactase they need to digest milk. But as they age, lactase production drops, leading to discomfort when ingesting dairy products.
- Secondary lactose intolerance often stems from illness or injury that affects your small intestine. This could include Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, an intestinal infection, or other problems. Treating the underlying condition may help with the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
- Congenital lactose intolerance in babies is rare but possible. It can occur in infants whose parents have the disorder, or in premature infants due to a lower or insufficient level of lactase.
Am I at Risk for Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is very common. However, adults may be more at risk for lactose intolerance if they:
- Are older, since lactose intolerance appears typically later in life
- Are of African, American Indian, Asian, or Hispanic
- Were born prematurely
- Have been treated for cancer with radiation therapy or chemotherapy
When Should I See a Doctor?
While experiencing occasional pain or discomfort from gas, heartburn, or stomach ache is common, if these problems occur regularly it’s time to see a gastroenterologist.
Your doctor may suspect you are lactose intolerant given your symptoms and your response to dietary changes. There are two possible tests used to confirm the diagnosis:
- A hydrogen breath test requires you to drink a liquid with high amounts of lactose. Then your doctor will measure the volume of hydrogen in your breath, which is an indicator that you aren’t fully digesting the lactose.
- A lactose tolerance test requires you to drink the lactose liquid. Two hours after drinking it your doctor will conduct blood tests to measure the glucose in your blood. If your glucose (sugar) level doesn’t rise after drinking the lactose beverage, you are lactose intolerant.
What is the Treatment for Lactose Intolerance in Adults?
Determining the cause of lactose intolerance is the first step toward treating it. If you have the secondary form of the disease caused by an underlying medical condition, treating that illness may help. Other causes of lactose intolerance can be managed potentially by lowering the amount of lactose in your diet.
Here are four things you can do now to manage the condition:
- Limit consumption of milk or other dairy products like cheese and ice cream
- Consume only small amounts of milk products in your daily meals
- Only eat lactose-reduced or lactose-free dairy products
- Add a powder or liquid lactase enzyme to break down the lactose in the dairy products that you do consume
If you’re worried about receiving enough calcium, maintaining good nutrition will help you gather the nutrients you need from other foods such as:
- Broccoli and leafy green vegetables
- Calcium-fortified foods like juices and cereals
- Milk substitutes such as almond, soy, or rice milk
- Nuts and grains
The good news is that most supermarkets offer lactose-free products, including ice cream, milk, and even yogurt. These substitutes can help you manage the disease.
However, if the symptoms don’t go away, it’s important that you schedule an appointment with the team at Gastroenterology Associates of Southwest Florida, PA. We’ve been a trusted resource for patients for more than a decade and can help you with a host of digestive health disorders. Click here to schedule an appointment.