Simple Solutions for Lactose Intolerance

January 18th, 2010

Despite the prominence of milk and other dairy products in the modern diet, many people are lactose intolerant and experience uncomfortable digestive symptoms from not digesting them properly. Fortunately, there are some simple measures that can make lactose intolerance much less of an issue.

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose which is the form of sugar found in milk and the dairy products derived from it. As many as 75% of adults worldwide are believed to be lactose intolerant and symptoms can range from mild to severe and include flatulence, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In addition, undigested lactose can allow undesirable species of bacteria and fungi to proliferate in the intestines and lead to an imbalance that can compromise digestive function and overall health.

The Causes of Lactose Intolerance

Lactase is an enzyme that’s needed for the digestion of lactose, and people who are lactose intolerant are unable to produce it. The ability to produce lactase naturally declines with age, and this is a major reason why so many people are lactose intolerant. Due to a genetic mutation, some people are able to produce lactose throughout adulthood, but these people are susceptible to lactose intolerance as well.

The lining of the small intestine contains microscopic projections called microvilli which produce a number of digestive enzymes including lactase. Anything that causes intestinal inflammation can damage these microvilli and therefore interfere with lactase production, and in turn, the digestion of dairy. Bacterial overgrowth, food sensitivities, infections, and excessive consumption of processed foods are some of the common causes of such inflammation. People who react negatively to gluten or eat a lot of processed foods that contain unhealthy amounts of sugar are especially prone to intestinal inflammation and lactose intolerance.

Overcoming Lactose Intolerance

If you think you have the genetic potential to produce lactase as an adult, the simplest way to regain the ability to properly digest dairy is to improve your intestinal health. Once the inflammation in your intestines decreases and your intestinal lining has a chance to heal, which may take months, you may regain the ability to produce lactase and digest dairy without issue. Even if you doubt your genetic ability to produce lactase as an adult, it’s still in your best interest to promote healthy intestinal function. Your overall health is dependent on your digestion, and you may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Two other alternatives, regardless of your genetic ability to produce lactase, are to use a digestive aid or to only consume dairy products that contain a minimal amount of lactose. Lactaid is a popular brand that offers both a supplemental digestive aid containing lactase as well as dairy products that have been pre-treated with it. However, these digestive aids often contain questionable additives, and the dairy that’s pre-treated with them is subject to the quality concerns of modern day industrial dairy farming. Dairy cattle are often confined to small spaces and fed poor quality grain and soy based diets instead of being allowed to naturally graze on pasture as they do in nature. They’re frequently treated with antibiotics to compensate for the poor health that results and may be given hormones to increase their milk production. As a result, the milk they produce may contain chemical residues and is likely to be much less nutritious.

Better Dairy Choices

In my opinion, a better approach is to be more selective about the dairy products that you consume, or avoid them entirely. Given the popularity of dairy, you probably don’t like the idea of giving it up. However, many people react negatively to the casein or whey protein in dairy regardless of their ability to digest lactose, and this should be an important consideration.

If you’d prefer to keep dairy in your diet, there are still a few remaining options. One of the many benefits of raw milk is that it contains more lactase than conventional milk. This is because pasteurization destroys lactase along with most other enzymes. Many people who are lactose intolerant report being able to consume raw milk without issue. However, it’s important to realize that raw milk poses an increased risk of food borne illness which makes it critically important to purchase raw milk from a farm that you trust. For more information about raw milk and where to get it, I suggest reading The Untold Story of Milk by Ron Schmid ND, or visiting the website created by the Weston A. Price Foundation.

In my opinion, an even better option would be to choose fermented dairy products such as kefir, yogurt, and cheese. The beneficial bacteria that drive fermentation greatly reduce the amount of lactose in milk and therefore make it much easier to digest. In addition, fermented foods are a great source of probiotics. However, it’s still important that they’re derived from high quality milk, and the benefits of fermentation are likely to be greater if the milk is raw.

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