Approximately 65 percent of adults have a reduced ability to digest lactose. Lactose is a sugar in milk and milk products that is broken down by the enzyme lactase, which is produced in the small intestine. If the lactose is not broken down, it can produce a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms, including gas, bloating, cramping and diarrhea. Most people who suffer from lactose intolerance end up completely avoiding dairy. But new research suggests that might not be necessary.
Dairy products are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D, which are essential for strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D also helps the body absorb calcium, making it even more crucial. Eliminating dairy products can cause nutritional problems if you don’t make up for the vitamin loss in other ways. Studies have shown that calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis, a condition that weakens bones and can result in fractures.
It is important to note that being lactose intolerant is not the same as having a milk allergy, which is a more serious condition affecting far fewer people. Experts now agree that people can have varying degrees of lactose intolerance and that keeping dairy in the diet is actually beneficial. The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended that children with mild lactose intolerance should try to keep some dairy products in their diet, particularly cheese and yogurt, which contain less lactose. Recent research has also shown that children and adults with lactose intolerance can build up tolerance over time by drinking small amounts of milk, which can slowly change their intestinal bacteria and make lactose easier to digest.
Taking supplemental lactase enzyme can also help digest the lactose and allow people with lactose intolerance to reduce or even eliminate symptoms. Keep in mind, however, that many people who are lactose intolerant also have trouble breaking down milk proteins as well. Therefore, products that combine lactase with protein-digesting enzymes (proteases) are usually a much better choice.
If you are one of the millions of Americans suffering from lactose intolerance, it doesn’t mean you have to avoid dairy altogether. Try working some into your diet and see what your body can tolerate. Look for a good digestive enzyme product and you may find that you are finally able to enjoy foods you once had to avoid!