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What Causes Lactose Intolerance and How to Treat It

Having an intolerance to lactose can be challenging and uncomfortable. Find out more about the causes of lactose intolerance and how to better manage it.
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Though we may not know it, cow's milk has sugar. There are many people born with an inability to actually digest this sugar, though they may have safely enjoyed their mother's milk. When they consume even small amounts of milk, those with lactose intolerance experience all kinds of unhealthy and disruptive digestive problems.

What causes lactose intolerance?
There are several reasons people may show signs of lactose intolerance, but let's first understand what actually happens when dairy is consumed. As you drink a glass of milk, the lactose, or the natural sugar in the milk, has to be broken into its two key components -- glucose and galactose. Only then can the body actually absorb the different nutrients in the milk.

Unfortunately, the enzymes that do this splitting apart -- known as lactase -- may not be abundant enough in the body to allow it to be handled properly. Because lactase is stored in the cells along the small intestine, it's there the trouble begins. Exactly why people don't have enough lactase is the big question, and there are three common theories behind it:

  1. They inherited it from their family and were born that way;
  2. They suffered damage to their intestines from another similar issue, such as another intolerance or allergy; or 
  3. They didn't develop properly and have developed a deficiency.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, bloating/gas, nausea and/or vomiting. Whatever the reason behind an individuals' lactose intolerance, the treatment is the same.

The Elimination Diet
Since there is no cure or remedy for the condition, the only thing that can be done for those with lactose intolerance is to follow what is known as an elimination diet. This cuts out any and all sources of dairy food. Unfortunately, many people don't recognize the hidden sources of lactose in the modern diet. While it's easy to skip glasses of milk, bowls of ice cream, slices of cheese and cups of yogurt, there are milk fat solids and dairy products in many packaged foods and restaurant meals.

This means it's up to the individual to find ways to educate themselves about the foods they choose to eat most often. For example, a simple loaf of white bread from a local bakery may have dairy. So it's important to take the time to sit down and make lists of all of the foods eaten regularly, recognize where the risks are found and then make the appropriate substitutions. Almond milk or soy milk, for example, make great substitutions and you can find a whole range of soy-based products like cheese, ice cream, etc.

Professional Help
It's also a very wise idea to get a formal diagnosis from a physician before making radical changes to the diet. A doctor can perform the right tests and ensure what you're experiencing is indeed lactose intolerance and not a milk allergy or some other issue.

The physician can also recommend a nutritionist if you do indeed have lactose tolerance. This is a must-do step, because a nutritionist can help you to formulate a diet that's nutrient balanced and has all the essential materials that are removed when dairy is cut from the diet. They can show their patients how to replace any missing calcium and how to safely dine out by knowing which foods are safest.

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