Lactose Intolerance


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Introduction

When someone is said to be lactose intolerant this is because the digestive system of this individual is not able to break down completely the sugar found in milk called LACTOSE. This inability results from a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which is produced by the cells that line the small intestine. Hence, the term Lactase Deficiency.

In a normal digestive system all the food we eat is broken down into smaller and simpler ‘bits and pieces' in an easy way to say it. This helps the body to absorb the food and take out the proteins and what ever is needed to maintain itself. Lactase breaks down milk sugar (lactose) into the simpler form of sugar called glucose that can then be absorbed into the bloodstream.

When lactase is missing or there is not enough of it to digest the lactose consumed, the results may be very distressing (see symptoms) for the person. While not all persons deficient in lactase have the same symptoms if at all, those who do are considered to be lactose intolerant.

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What is lactose anyway?

Lactose is simply a sugar found in milk.

Any sort of milk produced by the human being or animals (we do not like to call humans as animals-sorry biologists) contains lactose. The sugar we mix with our coffees or teas (in the case of the British) comes generally from the sugarcane and this sugar is called sucrose. On the other hand sugar we find in fruits is called fructose and sugar that is used in the brewing of barley, wheat and oats is called maltose (not Maltese). Our body needs sugar as it is the source of fuel we need to for example move our muscles or to simply be able to read this message. However, the only sugar our body is able to burn is called glucose, therefore all other sugars that enter our system have to be converted into glucose. This can only be done by the help of enzymes produced by our body that are able to biochemically convert what ever sugar into glucose.

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What causes lactose intolerance?

 

So now we know that lactose intolerance is caused by the inability of the digestive system to break down lactose into glucose. We also know that the protein (enzyme) responsible to break down lactose into glucose is called lactase. Therefore, the lack of lactose causes lactose intolerance.However, different persons may have different amounts of lactase produced. For instance Peter may be producing just enough lactase to cope with a glass of milk in the morning before suffering any effects while Jane is not even able to have a lick of ice-cream because it distresses her. Some of the causes of lactose intolerance are known. The production of the enzyme lactase can be hindered by certain digestive diseases and injuries to the small intestine. In some cases, children are born without the ability to produce lactase. However, in most cases lactase deficiency develops naturally over time when after about the age of 2 years, the body begins to produce less lactase. Interestingly, most people do not experience symptoms until they reach an older age.

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What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

 

The symptoms listed below are caused by the fermentation of lactose. Since lactose is not broken into glucose, and hence left unabsorbed by the body, the perfect conditions found in the intestines help the lactose to ferment and this leads to the formation of gases. A particular gas is methane that is usually the cause for the pain and aggressive flatulence.

Common symptoms include:

  • nausea
  • cramps
  • bloating gas,
  • wind diarrhea, which may begin from after half an hour to 2 hours after eating or drinking foods containing lactose.

Persons who suffer from lactase deficiency and do not avoid lactose may suffer from weight loss and malnutrition.

The severity of symptoms varies depending on the amount of lactose each individual can tolerate. Some of the symptoms may be similar to those of milk allergy but milk allergies can cause the body to react quicker, more often within a few minutes.

Compare the symptoms of lactose intolerance with those of milk allergy.

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What treatment can I use for lactose intolerance?

Prevention is better than cure is what the wise say, and in this case this proves to be very right because there is no cure for lactose intolerance for the moment.

However, luckily lactose intolerance is relatively easy to treat. Symptoms can be controlled through diet as at the moment there is no existing treatment to improve the body's ability to produce lactase.

Young children with lactase deficiency should not consume any foods containing lactose (for a list of foods containing hidden lactose click here). In general older children and adults need not avoid lactose completely, but individuals can handle different amounts of lactose . For instance, John may suffer symptoms after drinking a small glass of milk, while Rose can drink one glass but not two. Some persons may be able to tolerate certain products containing lactose but not others. This is a learning process for each individual and it is only by trial and error to find out what and how much exactly one is able to handle products containing lactose.

One can buy products that do not contain lactose. Supermarkets sell many products that can improve one's life without the risk of consuming lactose. One can find many non-dairy products including butter, yoghourt, ‘cream', and of coarse Soya milk. This milk contains all of the nutrients including calcium, found in regular milk. One can buy unsweetened Soya-milk or sweetened, usually with fructose. Please make sure that when you are shopping for non lactose food products you do not forget to look for the other ingredients that contain hidden lactose as otherwise you might get symptoms anyway. Make sure you have a copy of the list for the hidden products.

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Do I/my child suffer form lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is a very common disorder that is present in many people and being ignored all the time. The first thing you basically need to check about yourself is whether you get wind as soon as you have dairy products. This usually start within a few minutes and may be an indication that you might be lactase deficient (on the other hand if your colleague in the office suffers from wind instruct him to avoid dairy products to allow you to work in peace!).

Many persons suffer from symptoms of lactose intolerance without realising the actual cause of it. In these cases the person may feel distressed with symptoms. The main problem is the fact that not many people would ever think that milk may give all these problems to them. Usually all other things are blamed but milk is never in the list of suspicions (especially in allergies - see milk allergies).

Many times babies suffer from wind and colic. However, the cause of all the pain, crying and distress on both the baby and the parents may be the inability of the baby to break down lactose (lactase deficiency). The fermentation of lactose in the bowels causes the formation of gases, including methane and carbon dioxide. These will cause the baby’s intestines to inflate and there is not need to say how distressing this feeling on the baby is. Unfortunately this remains undetected and the baby is fed milk all the time. With advise from the doctor and dieticians a supplement to milk should be found, at least to see if the cause for colic is milk.

Another drawback is that LI is misdiagnosed in most of the cases. Doctors find it difficult to pinpoint the presence of LI and people with this condition are wrongly classified as suffering from the Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). These persons are made to suffer in vain, where if they were diagnosed properly, all it takes is the avoidance of milk from their diet. This will be enough to lead them to a normal life.

Above all how would one expect us to blame milk, isn’t it the same liquid that our mother has produced to nourish us with? Isn’t milk the most special drink, full of proteins and nutrients much required by our body? Sad to say that this does not make sense for every one because statistics show the other face of milk.

Permanent lactase deficiency (the inability to produce the enzyme needed to break down lactose) develops in about 80-95% of blacks and Orientals. About 50% of Mediterranean are affected while only up to 15% of Northern Europeans develop lactase deficiency.

Many people suffer from lactose intolerance but probably few of them realise this and remain in distress unnecessarily.

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Is lactose intolerance contagious?

The answer is simply NO. These disorders are not transmitted from a person to another, nor are they transmitted through any other media (e.g., bacteria, viruses, animals).

While lactose intolerance is the inability of the person in question to produce enough lactase to break down the sugar lactose, milk allergy is caused by the inability of the immune system to learn that milk proteins are harmless for the body. None of these two irregularities are caused by an external agent, however, they can be hereditary. See below.

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My child is suffering from lactose intolerance but we never did. How did this happen?

As you might already know each one of us was made by our mother and father. On conception, the chromosomes of both our parents fused together and half the genes of each parent combined to make what you and I are today. Each human being has 46 chromosomes in our blood cell (not in the red ones though). Each chromosome contains about 1000 genes and each gene has a particular function to do.

For instance if you have a black skin then the gene that produces the protein melanin is switched on. If you are a Mediterranean and have a tan skin then the same gene is producing less melanin, hence the lighter colour in Mediterranean than in black people. Moreover, Nordics have even a lighter skin and as you can predict the gene responsible for the production of melanin produces less melanin. Genes can become damaged during conception or during pregnancy and this damage can hinder and alter their production of the protein they are assigned to produce. In very rare cases (but they exist) the mutation or damage to the gene can completely disallow the gene to function at all and therefore produces no proteins - in genetics it is called switching off (see below). Staying on the case of skin colour albinos are the result of the damaged gene that produces melanin.

Similarly, everybody has 2 genes (in each cell) that produce lactase (to breakdown lactose). One is inherited from the father and one from the mother. If one of the genes we inherited does not switch on properly when it should do, there will not be enough lactase produced, however, this is not a big problem because the other gene normally compensates by producing more lactase. In this case the person in question would not suffer from any intolerance. Now if this person has a child and passes the weak gene to the child and the mother happens to have a weak gene similar to the partner, then the child is going to inherit two weak genes that are not able to produce enough lactase, hence the lactose intolerance to the child while the parents are not suffering.

The extent of how much intolerant to lactose the child is depends on how much these two genes produce lactase. If they do not produce any at all (due to complete damage) then the child will be severely intolerant to lactose.

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Did you know?

More non Caucasians are lactose intolerant then not. Only about 10% Caucasians are affected.

Around 95% of Asians have LI while 75% Blacks and 50% Mediterranean.

 

 

Not True!!!

Contrary to what some people suggest, do not take Goats' milk instead of Cow's milk if you are LI.

All milk derived from mammalian animals contain lactose.

 

Click Here!

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