Lactose intolerance (also known as milk intolerance) is the inability of the body to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk. Also known as lactose malabsorption, for the most part it is harmless, but it can be rather uncomfortable causing bloating, gas, diarrhea, indigestion, and nausea. Too little of an enzyme produced in your small intestine (lactase) is usually responsible for lactose intolerance. You can have low levels of lactase and still be able to digest milk products. If your levels are too low you become lactose intolerant, leading to symptoms after you eat or drink dairy.
There are three different types of lactose intolerance. Primary lactose intolerance is the most common type. When we are infants and dependent on milk as our primary source of nutrition, our bodies need lactase. As we grow and new foods are introduced the production of lactase normally decreases. We still produce it but less is typically needed for our daily dairy intake. When our production on lactase drastically drops off we have primary lactose intolerance and the symptoms that go with it. Secondary lactose intolerance is usually brought on by illness, injury or after surgery involving the small intestine. Diseases associated with secondary lactose intolerance include intestinal infection, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. The third type is congenital or developmental lactose intolerance. It’s possible, but rare, for babies to be born with lactose intolerance caused by a lack of lactase. This disorder is passed from generation to generation in a pattern of inheritance called autosomal recessive, meaning that both the mother and the father must pass on the same gene variant for a child to be affected. Premature infants can also have lactose intolerance because of an insufficient lactase level. The lactase producing cells do not develop until late in the third trimester.
Treatment of lactose intolerance has more to do with the management of symptoms. In people with lactose intolerance caused by an underlying condition, treating the condition might restore the body’s ability to digest lactose, although that process can take months. For other causes, you might avoid the discomfort of lactose intolerance by following a low-lactose diet. A few ways to lower lactase in your diet are to limit dairy products, use lactose-reduced products, or add a lactase enzyme to your foods that helps to break down the lactose. Strictly limiting or cutting out dairy from your diet can be detrimental to your health. Not only do our bodies need the calcium and Vitamin D supplied by dairy products but milk provides proteins that are essential for the growth and development of infants, children, and adolescents.
Lactose intolerance is an issue routinely addressed by our Meigs County Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Staff. Those participants who suffer from lactose intolerance have the option of low lactose/ lactose free milk or regular milk and small servings of regular dairy products spread throughout their meals. With infants who are not breastfed and are lactose intolerant, we work with the physician to find the best formula match for each infant.
For more information, contact me via Meigs WIC at 740-992-0392 (Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m.-noon or 1-4 p.m.).
Jenna Petry, RN, is a Certifying WIC Health Professional at the Meigs County Health Department.