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Lactose intolerance

Did you know that only one-third of adults can digest milk? Our ability to digest lactose (the main sugar found in milk) is reliant on our body’s production of an enzyme called lactase.

Lactose intolerance occurs when your small intestine doesn't produce enough of an enzyme (lactase) to digest milk sugar (lactose).

Normally, lactase turns milk sugar into two simple sugars — glucose and galactose, which are absorbed into the bloodstream through the intestinal lining.

If you're lactase deficient, lactose in your food moves into the colon instead of being processed and absorbed. In the colon, normal bacteria interact with undigested lactose, causing the signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance.

When the enzyme lactase is not present, lactose passes into the colon and feeds the bacterium that generates fluid and gas. This is what causes symptoms such as painful bloating, cramps and diarrhoea – the condition known as lactose intolerance or malabsorption.

Primary lactose intolerance

This is the most common type of lactose intolerance. People who develop primary lactose intolerance start life producing plenty of lactase — a necessity for infants, who get all their nutrition from milk. As children replace milk with other foods, their lactase production normally decreases, but remains high enough to digest the amount of dairy in a typical adult diet.

In primary lactose intolerance, lactase production falls off sharply, making milk products difficult to digest by adulthood. Primary lactose intolerance is genetically determined, occurring in a large proportion of people with Asian ancestry. The condition is also common among those of Mediterranean or Southern European descent.

It’s important to be aware that not all bowel complaints are a result of lactose intolerance – “Our bowels are sensitive organs,” said Sioned Quirk of the British Dietetic Association. “If we’ve been ill, or if we’re stressed or run down, we often will have some type of bowel symptoms. It’s not necessarily lactose intolerance.”    

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More Information:

  • Fructose and Lactose Hydrogen Breath Test