After infancy, more than half of adults end up with some sort of lactose intolerance. However, the degree of severity varies greatly.
Since so many folks suffer from less-than-perfect digestion after dairy, we decided to sit down
Most adults suffer from some degree of lactose intolerance.
with Dr. Amir Abadir to help us understand what’s happening in your guts when they disagree with dairy.
The lowdown on dairy
If you’re lactose intolerant, it’s not your fault. It means you don’t have enough of the enzyme your body needs to break down dairy.
“Lactose,” says Dr. Abadir, “unlike other sugars like glucose, cannot be absorbed by our intestines in its original form.” We need an enzyme called lactase to split it in half. Then our small intestine can absorb it.
If your body doesn’t produce enough lactase, you end up with lactose that’s completely intact. “The intact lactose draws water into the intestines from the body,” says Dr. Abadir, “which results in excessive fluid in the intestine.” And what happens when there’s excessive fluid in the intestine? “More intense contractions and faster movements.” In other words, diarrhea.
To top it off, as the whole lactose reaches the large intestine, bacteria have a feast. And what happens when bacteria in your large intestine feast? “The production of hydrogen gas that can result in flatulence.” In other words, bloating and gas.
Other reasons for lactose intolerance are age, other digestive issues and even ethnicity.
Dr. Abadir explains: “People of certain ethnic backgrounds may be more susceptible to the loss of lactase enzymes than others, particularly those of Asian and African descent. This may be due to a larger loss of enzymes with age in these patients or to a smaller amount of total lactase enzymes that they start off with at birth.”
The lactose proxy
As most lactose-free folks know, there are plenty of dairy alternatives out there. But Dr. Abadir warns about calcium intake, since for many, dairy is “our primary source of dietary calcium.” So if you cut out dairy, you’ll need to make sure you’re getting calcium elsewhere. “This is especially true for postmenopausal women who are at increased risk of bone loss and fractures from osteoporosis,” says Dr. Abadir.
Here are some plant-based, dairy-free foods with plenty of calcium.
- Cruciferous veggies, like broccoli, kale and bok choy
As far as over-the-counter products that help alleviate symptoms, proportion is key. “Otherwise the ingested lactose will overwhelm the available supplemental enzyme and symptoms will develop,” says Dr. Abadir.
So as it goes with most things, moderation is the goal.