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4 Signs of Lactose Intolerance and How to Treat It

Everyone loves ice cream, but no one loves the intestinal distress that can happen after eating a bowl of this classic treat. If you have experienced gas, cramping, or diarrhea after eating ice cream or other dairy-rich foods, you may be lactose intolerant.

Those who are lactose intolerant can’t fully digest the sugar in milk. This sugar is called lactose. Their inability to digest it results in stomach issues after eating or drinking food and drinks that contain dairy. Lactose intolerance is also called lactose malabsorption. It’s usually harmless, but the symptoms can be uncomfortable.

Lactose intolerance is usually caused by a lack of an enzyme called lactase. It’s produced in the small intestine. Some people who produce a small amount of lactase are still able to digest milk products. If levels of lactase are too low, you’ll become lactose intolerant and experience symptoms after you eat or drink dairy products. Many people who are lactose intolerance can manage it without giving up all foods with dairy.

Risk factors

There are several factors that can make you more likely to have lactose intolerance.

  • Age. Lactose intolerance usually develops in adulthood. It’s uncommon in babies and children.
  • Ethnicity. Those of African, Asian, Hispanic, and American Indian descent are more likely to be lactose intolerant.
  • Premature birth. The small intestine doesn’t develop the cells that produce lactase until late in the third trimester. Because of this, infants born prematurely may have reduced levels of lactase.
  • Disease of the small intestine. Lactose intolerance can occur in those who experience bacterial overgrowth, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease.
  • Some cancer treatments. Radiation therapy for stomach cancer or chemotherapy that results in intestinal complications increases the risk of developing lactose intolerance.

Signs of Lactose Intolerance

If you experience the symptoms of lactose intolerance, you know how painful and disruptive they can be. Signs of lactose intolerance usually begin 30 minutes to two hours after eating food that contains lactose. Signs and symptoms include:

  1. Diarrhea
  2. Nausea and vomiting
  3. Stomach cramps
  4. Gas and bloating

At-Home Treatments for Lactose Intolerance

Sometimes, lactose intolerance is caused by an underlying condition. In those cases, treating the condition may reverse lactose intolerance, although it can take months. If your lactose intolerance is caused by other things, you can avoid the symptoms by following a low-lactose diet.

Lower the Amount of Lactose in Your Diet

Many with lactose intolerance can still eat some dairy products without symptoms. Some are able to eat low-fat milk products easier than whole-milk products. It may be possible to increase your tolerance to dairy by gradually adding them to your diet. Minimize your symptoms by:

  • Eating smaller servings. The smaller the serving, the less likely it is to cause symptoms. Try a serving of milk that’s less than 4 ounces.
  • Have milk with meals. Drinking milk with other foods slows the digestive process. This may reduce symptoms.
  • Add lactase enzyme to milk to break down lactose. Use lactase enzyme tablets or drops. These over-the-counter remedies may help you enjoy dairy without symptoms. Tablets can be taken before a meal or snack, and the drops can be added to a carton of milk. These products don’t ease symptoms in everyone who is lactose intolerant.
  • Experiment with dairy products. Different dairy products have different amounts of lactose. Hard cheeses, like Swiss, parmesan, and cheddar have less lactose and don’t usually cause symptoms. Ice cream and milk have the most lactose. Ice cream also has a high-fat content, which may allow you to enjoy it without symptoms. Eating cultured milk products may also result in no symptoms because the bacteria used to culture it produces the enzyme that breaks down lactose.

Continue to Eat a Healthy Diet

When you reduce the number of dairy products in your diet, you’ll need to make sure that you continue to get the appropriate amount of calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is a mineral that is responsible for building strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle contractions, and ensuring blood clots normally. Calcium is found in non-dairy foods like:

  • Broccoli and leafy green vegetables
  • Oranges
  • Almonds, Brazil nuts, and dried beans
  • Canned salmon or sardines
  • Milk substitutes, like soy or rice milk
  • Calcium-fortified products

It’s also important to make sure you get enough vitamin D, which is typically found in fortified milk. Vitamin D is also in eggs, liver, and yogurt, and your body makes vitamin D when you spend time in the sun. Even when not restricting dairy, many adults are vitamin D-deficient. Talk to your primary care physician about taking vitamin D and calcium supplements if you think you’re not getting enough of each.

If you frequently experience symptoms of lactose intolerance after eating foods with dairy or want to improve your overall digestive health, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist today.

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