Lactose intolerance is a digestive problem experienced by many people throughout the world, with conceivably one in five people experiencing symptoms suggestive of this condition. However, quotas of lactose intolerance vary substantially between cultures, with merely one in 50 people of Northern European origin suffering from it to some extent. Conversely the majority of people of Chinese ancestry have some degree of lactose intolerance. A simple rationale to this divide may well be that in the past, countries such as East Asia and Africa might not have developed the capacity to adequately digest lactose due to the historical lack of fresh milk provision.
This condition is no respecter of age as it can arise at during all stages of life, including babies. Nevertheless, people aged between 20-40 years are the most common group to develop lactose intolerance. Rarely new born babies are lactose intolerant, and consequently will have to avoid any foodstuffs that contain lactose for their lifetimes. There is a genetic link associated with lactose intolerance, and for those families affected, symptoms usually arise at some stage between teenager and adult years.
Where is lactose found?
Lactose is located in every mammal’s milk and in like for like amounts. Cows’ milk, goats’ milk, buffalo milk and sheep’s’ milk all contain lactose.
What is lactose intolerance?
Milk sugar (medically termed as lactose) is located in milk, and can only be absorbed by the body if it alters into simple sugars labelled as glucose and galactose. This modification occurs when the lactose goes beyond the stomach into the higher portion of the small intestine, and makes a connection with a chemical named lactase, and this is made by cells that line the higher component of the small intestine. Therefore lactose intolerance is as a result of insufficient lactase in the small intestine, and consequently the inability to be broken down, and absorbed.
Who may have lactose intolerance?
Some people start out in life with a predisposition to acquire intolerance to lactose, whilst other people may develop this condition as a consequence of chemotherapy treatment or indeed gastroenteritis, although this may resolve over time. Importantly the level of intolerance varies, as some people may be able to cope with small amounts, whereas for people who have extreme intolerance a small amount of milk consumed may instigate immediate symptoms. This article will expand on the different types of lactose intolerance in a dedicated separate section!
Symptoms may include, stomach pains, diarrhoea, and bloating, if any milk or its derivatives, such as butter etc. is consumed. In toddlers and babies, although rare, the symptoms may be more severe as they may experience nutrition deficiency and delayed development.
Can this condition be known as an allergy?
Simple answer to this question is NO! As the only symptoms suffered as those associated directly with the digestive system. An allergy to milk per se would affect your immune system, as the culprit is an allergic reaction due to the proteins located in milk, with the consequence of allergy related symptoms.
Causes of lactose intolerance?
Previously in this article we have briefly outlined the different types, and this section we will fully expand on the different forms of lactose intolerance.
Innate, (i.e. familial form) lactase deficiency is divided into 2 components
- Primary lactase deficiency: this category is produced due to minimal amounts of lactase, and symptoms can occur at any age, however atypically prior to 6
- Congenital lactase deficiency: lactose intolerance symptoms manifest almost immediately following birth, as soon as the baby is fed with either breast milk or formula.
Secondary lactase deficiency
This occurs due to something that causes injury to the lactose producing cells in the lining of the small intestine. More prevalent in children, and frequently transpires following a stomach infection, such as bacterial or viral gastroenteritis. However, this type may also result as a subsequent complication of chemotherapy or indeed other bowel disorders.
Developmental lactase deficiency
Following the birth of a baby, sufficient levels of lactase take time to accumulate in the digestive system, and consequently babies born prior to 34 weeks gestation (normal is 40 weeks) might be born with an extremely low amount of lactase, which results in a impermanent lactose intolerance. However, happily this goes as the baby matures.
Products that contain lactose
- Milk powder- including skimmed milk powder
- Milk drinks – including malted milk drinks
- Cheese and all its derivatives
- Butter and margarine (with the exception of dairy free)
- Whey- including whey syrup sweetener
- Milk sugar solids
- All processed foods may contain lactose – always check the labels
If you are one of those unfortunate people who suffer with lactose intolerance, your enjoyment of food and drinks need not suffer. Soya milk easily obtainable from all supermarkets is both delicious and inexpensive, and can be used as a substitute for all your cooking requirements. However, a note of caution must be stated here that babies MUST only be given any Soya milk or weaning foods that contain soy, under the direct supervision of a GP and or a dietician, as babies under 12 months old require a very specific nutrition regime.
To complete this article on a more optimistic note, many people will recover from this condition over time, and can again drink a glass of cold milk straight from the fridge without any adverse health repercussions.