What is Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is an intolerance to milk and some dairy products caused by an inability to digest lactose (milk sugar). People with lactose intolerance don't have enough of the enzyme lactase to digest lactose. Typically, lactose intolerance develops gradually at adolescence. The main symptoms of lactose intolerance are abdominal bloating, excessive intestinal gas, diarrhea, cramping, and nausea.
Lactose intolerance affects as many as 50 to 70% of people from an Asian, African, Native American, Eastern Europe or Mediterranean ethnic backgrounds. People with Northern or Western European ethnic backgrounds are far less likely to experience this intolerance. This may be related to a history in these populations of the development of dairying in Northern and Western Europe.
Diagnosing Lactose Intolerance
The easiest way for a woman to find out if she is intolerant is through self-monitoring. One way is for her to cut dairy products out of her diet for a time (about one week to ten days) and see if her gastro-intestinal symptoms go away. Another way is for her to keep a diary of foods and symptoms and evaluate it for patterns. If a change in diet brings no results, she should see a doctor to make sure she is not suffering from another digestive condition.
Still, some people find it hard to reach a conclusion with self-monitoring because of the lag in the development of symptoms after eating, the subjectiveness of symptoms, and the number of other factors that confuse analysis. Also, when there is a suspicion of other gastrointestinal problems, more conclusive evidence is needed.
A doctor can perform a breath hydrogen test, which involves checking the patient's breath hydrogen levels one hour after consuming a lactose meal. If her hydrogen levels are greater than 20 ppm (parts per million) over the baseline concentration then she is considered lactose intolerant. Undigested lactose produces hydrogen gas as it passes through the gut. Lactose intolerance can also be diagnosed through a biopsy of the small intestine. But, this is virtually never done for lactose intolerance itself. Rather, it is discovered incidentally when looking for other, more serious problems.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome's (IBS) symptoms are very similar to lactose intolerance. But, IBS has no physical signs or diagnostic tests. The dietary and other provisions for IBS are much different than for lactose intolerance. Women with lactose intolerance suffer needlessly because they are misdiagnosed as having IBS. Any woman with IBS that doesnt respond to treatment should be tested for lactose intolerance.
Coping with Lactose Intolerance
Limiting the amount of dairy products in a person's diet usually reduces or eliminates the symptoms of lactose intolerance. But this approach has pitfalls, especially for women. It can , result in deficiencies of calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, and protein. Women generally only build bone mass up to age 30. If their calcium intake is poor, they can have increased risk for osteoporosis and fractures, in later life. Also, calcium has been implicated in relieving the symptoms of PMS, so decreasing calcium intake significantly could possibly result in problems with PMS.
A woman might try drinking small amounts of milk in combination with food or adding lactase enzymes to milk (acidophilus milk, which can be found in most grocery stores). These enzymes can also be taken in the form of a pill or chewable tablet. Fermented
milk products such as yogurt can usually be tolerated. Goat's milk can sometimes be tolerated and buttermilk and cheeses have less lactose than milk. A variety of non-dairy foods have calcium, and still others have it added artificially (like orange juice and cereals). Multiple vitamins and calcium supplements are another source.