Living with Lactose Intolerance

As a child, lactose intolerance was my introduction to the itchy, gurgle-y, and ache-y world of dietary allergies. I remember it vividly. It was a grade school play date that promised, among other things, Play-Doh, cookies, and milk. But there was no milk. Amy was lactose intolerant rendering her family milk-less, and a pre-pubescent me imagining a world without pizza, a world without cereal, and a world without ice cream. Oh, the humanity!

I’m older now, and though I still love ice cream, I’ve stopped bemoaning the lives of the lactose intolerant. It’s not that bad, honestly. There are plenty of delicious, lactose-free alternatives to popular foodstuffs and plenty of treatment options too. Today on Healthversed, we’re going to dunk our proverbial cookies in to some lactose-free milk and hopefully learn a little along the way. Let’s go!

What is lactose?

Lactose is a natural sugar found in dairy products. It’s concentration within the particular product can vary quite dramatically. For example, milk, by weight, can contain as much as 8% or as little as 2%. It all depends.

A long, long time ago, “milk sugar” was even extracted and used to relieve the symptoms of arthritis. Thankfully the pharmaceutical community has made significant headway since the 1600s. As such, you no longer have to soak your ache-y arthritic hip in a bathtub full of milk. The miracles of modern science.

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What is lactose intolerance?

If you’re anything like me, then you’ll agree that the world really could use a little more tolerance. Unfortunately for some, the biological make-up of their bodies says otherwise.

For starters, lactose intolerance isn’t an allergy. It’s an inability to fully digest milk sugar. Instead of being processed through the digestive system, the lactose moves through the large intestine causing a laundry list of uncomfortable symptoms. It’s more common in Native Americans and people of Asian, African, and South American descent, and it’s most likely hereditary.

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Symptoms

As you no doubt just read, symptoms of lactose intolerance are caused by undigested milk sugar that makes its meager way to the large intestine. Now, it’s important to note that the severity of the symptoms can vary greatly on a case-by-case basis. And, some symptoms may remain absent entirely.

That said, lactose intolerance symptoms of note include gas, stomach aches, and bloating. If you consume milk and notice a few of these symptoms, then it may be a good idea to get tested.

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Tests

Let’s pretend that your last big bowl of breakfast cereal left you feeling gassy, bloated, and in pain. So, you dial up your doctor and book yourself an appointment for a few lactose tolerance tests. Here’s what you should expect.

First, expect questions. Doctors can often diagnose lactose intolerance by asking a few pointed questions. Should your little MD Q and A fall short, your family doctor may request what’s called a hydrogen breath test (HBT). An HBT is a simple, non-invasive way to measure carbohydrate malabsorption and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. Failing that, your doctor may ask to collect blood and test its sugar levels. If you don’t like needles, sorry. You may get stuck.

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Foods High in Lactose

The beautiful thing about websites like Healthversed? You don’t have to use your body as some sort of deranged science experiment. You’re always just a few clicks away from all the information that you need to keep you at 100%. Case in point, here’s a list of foods that you, the lactose intolerant, should avoid:

  • Milk, milkshakes and smoothies containing milk products
  • Whipping cream and coffee creamer
  • Ice cream (sigh)
  • Butter
  • Cream soups and sauces

For the record, this is by no means a comprehensive list of products to avoid, but it’s a great place to start. Lactose is present in a few non-traditional foodstuffs (which we’ll get in to a little bit later), but in general, it’s best to stay away from all milk derivatives not marked “lactose-free.” And yes, that includes ice cream.

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How Is lactose removed from food?

I mean, it’s not like lactose-free milk is a rare commodity. Lactose-free food options are everywhere, but it all starts with milk. When manufacturing lactose-free milk, food scientists don’t actually “remove” the lactose in the traditional sense of the word. That would be near impossible. Instead, manufacturers chemically react the lactose to transform it into molecules that are easier to digest.

What do they add to the milk to make it more digestible? It’s an enzyme called lactase, which breaks down the lactose into glucose and galactose. Those suffering from lactose intolerance have no difficulty digesting either of the sugars and, in turn, lactose-free milk!

Another interesting aside, yogurt. Most lactose intolerant people can actually digest yogurt, because the lactose is already digested by the yogurt’s bacteria. Chalk up another win for the ancient miracle that is bacteria!

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Food Alternatives

We’ve already touched on lactose-free milk. Safe for you to drink and delicious. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Soy, rice and nut milk all act as great, lactose-free options. Lactose-free cheese exists, but feel free to sub it out for vegan cheese, soy cheese, and more.

Food has come a long way. Heck, there’s even a lot of delicious, lactose-free ice cream options! The days of living a bland, lactose-free culinary life are long gone. And the world is a better place because of it. Nobody should have to live a life sans-ice cream. Ok. That’s enough about ice cream. Moving on. Promise.

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Lactase Supplements

If you recall earlier, during the section about removing lactose from milk, we mentioned a tiny little lactose-fighting enzyme called lactase. Please, everyone give lactase another warm welcome. This time though, lactase takes form in easy to swallow dietary supplements.

Lactase supplements allow the lactose intolerant to indulge in the creaminess of cream side-effect free! There are a lot of different brands, so we’ll gloss over that part and get straight to the good stuff. These stomach-ache savers can be taken before consuming milk to help aid its digestion.

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Surprising Sources of Lactose

You’ve made it this far, so you’re well aware of the common lactose-heavy food products. The milks, the cheeses … but lactose can be found in a variety of other non-obvious consumables, too.

Certain medications like birth control, digestion remedies, and a variety of quick dissolve vitamins often include the sugar. Some processed grains like pancake mixes, cookies, and even potato chips rely on lactose as an inexpensive alternative to traditional sugar. You can sometimes even find it in processed meats, spice mixes containing whey protein, and margarine. Nobody said that living a lactose-free life was easy.

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Lactose or Milk Protein Intolerance

Has reading this article caused you to question your own lactose tolerance? According to some studies, there’s more to milk intolerance than meets the eye.

If lactose-free milk isn’t helping your stomach, then you may actually be allergic to milk-protein, not lactose. Milk contains two proteins: A1 and A2. Allergies to these two proteins can cause similar side effects to lactose intolerance. There’s a lot of science, and very little time for me to break it all down for you. So, if you’re curious, I suggest you look it up and get in the know for good!

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Milk Haters

As it turns out, you don’t have to be lactose intolerant to hate milk. The world is full of all people, including haters … and they gonna hate.

Don’t believe me? Check out Not Milk, a fiery website devoted to all things anti-milk. Perhaps they haven’t tried ice cream? Sorry.

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