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Lactose Intolerance

What is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest significant amounts of lactose. Lactose is the predominant sugar of milk. Lactose intolerance results from a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which is normally produced by the cells that line the small intestine. Lactase breaks down milk sugar into simpler forms that can then be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance

Most symptoms of lactose intolerance begin 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating or drinking foods containing lactose. The severity of the symptoms depend on the amount of lactose the individual can tolerate.

Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include:

  • nausea
  • cramps
  • bloating
  • gas
  • diarrhea

Why does Lactose Intolerance cause Gas?

People with lactose intolerance do not produce enough of the lactase enzyme to break down lactose. When this happens, undigested lactose sits in the stomach, causing gas, bloating, and stomach cramps. When the intestine cannot absorb the lactose-containing foods, diarrhea occurs.

What causes Lactose Intolerance?

Some of the most common causes of lactose intolerance are:

  • Problems with the digestive tract. People with irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease have a reduced level of the lactase enzyme. People with diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, such as celiac disease, may also have lactose intolerance.
  • Medications. Certain antibiotics can trigger temporary lactose intolerance by interfering with the intestine's ability to produce the lactase enzyme.
  • Infection. After a bout of infectious diarrhea, some kids can develop a temporary lactose intolerance that usually improves after a few days or weeks.
  • Age. As people get older, their bodies usually stop producing the lactase enzyme, and most people will naturally become lactose intolerant over time.

Lactose Intolerance Statistics

Lactose intolerance is fairly common. Between 30 and 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant. Certain ethnic and racial populations are more widely affected than others. As many as 75 percent of all African Americans and American Indians and 90 percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is least common among persons of northern European descent.

How is lactose intolerance diagnosed?

The most common tests used to measure the absorption of lactose in the digestive system are the lactose tolerance test, the hydrogen breath test, and the stool acidity test. These tests are performed on an outpatient basis at a hospital, clinic, or doctor's office.

How is lactose intolerance treated?

Fortunately, lactose intolerance is relatively easy to treat. No treatment can improve the body's ability to produce lactase, but symptoms can be controlled through diet.

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