What could seem more nourishing than a delicious and wholesome glass of milk. It provides calcium to strengthen our bones and vitamin D, which among other benefits, strengthens the immune system and inhibits the formation of tumours.
Despite these clear benefits of milk and other dairy products a large percentage of the population of the world cannot enjoy a glass of milk, due to a condition known as Lactose Intolerance.
Lactose Intolerance is a medical condition characterized by the human body’s inability to metabolize a type of simple sugar contained in dairy products known as lactose. This inability is a result of a lack of sufficient amounts of the complimentary enzyme, lactase in the intestinal tract.
Without this enzyme to break it down, lactose passes into the colon where it causes the symptoms that characterize the condition. As the lactose is broken down in the Colon, it creates significant amounts of different gasses, including Hydrogen, CO2 and Methane. It is the production of these gasses that are the source of the discomfort associated with the condition.
As these gasses accumulate in the digestive tract, they can cause an array of symptoms, including abdominal cramps, nausea, bloating, gas, and diarrhoea. These symptoms can range from mild to severe and can be an enormous burden on those who suffer from them. These symptoms usually surface 20-30 minutes after ingesting foods contain lactose.
Lactose intolerance comes in three forms, primary, secondary and congenital. Both primary and secondary lactose intolerance are caused by environmental factors, and in these cases, there is minimal production of the enzyme lactase in the intestinal tract, but not enough to digest substantial amounts of lactose. Congenital lactose intolerance results from a genetic defect that prevents the production of lactase entirely.
The condition can be diagnosed through several methods, the three most common of which are Lactose Tolerance Test, the Hydrogen Breath Test, and the Stool Acidity Test. In the Lactose Tolerance test, the subject is required to fast before the test is administered.
During the test the subject drinks a liquid containing lactose. During two hours of observation, blood tests are taken to determine whether or not the lactose is being metabolized properly by the body.
In the Hydrogen Breath Test, the level of hydrogen gas is measured in the subject’s breath at regular intervals after the subject consumes a beverage containing lactose. In a person with normal digestion, this amount is negligible, but if hydrogen is present in the digestive system as a result of an inability to metabolize lactose, the incidence of hydrogen in the subject’s breath will increase to a measurable amount.
Both the Lactose Tolerance Tests and the Hydrogen Breath test are reserved for patients over six months of age, as large doses of lactose can be potentially dangerous to infants younger than six months.
For this reason, the Stool Acidity Test is given to infants to determine their lactose tolerance. As Lactose is broken down in the colon, it creates lactic acid, and possibly glucose which can be detected in a stool sample.
Treatment for Lactose Intolerance is mainly diet related as there is no way to prompt the body into creating the enzyme lactase in those with congenital lactose intolerance. It is possible to re-habituate the body into producing lactase in both primary and secondary forms of lactose intolerance and this done by slowly reintroducing lactose containing foods into the diet.
To assist in this re-habituation, foods with reduced lactose content are available at many supermarkets around the world. For those whose symptoms are more severe and persistent, an enzymatic lactase supplement is available without prescription.