Sugar Spoonie Series Part 2: Lactose 101

Probably the most well-known and marketed sugar sensitivity/intolerance is lactose intolerance. Lactose is the sugar found in milk and other dairy products.

In order to digest lactose, your body produces an enzyme known as lactase in the small intestine. The lactase then breaks down the lactose into glucose and galactose. These enzymes are then absorbed through the intestinal lining into the bloodstream. People with lactose intolerance do not have enough lactase to breakdown the lactose, so it moves through the colon instead, which causes symptoms of lactose intolerance.

For much of the population, lactase production gradually declines through childhood and into adulthood, leading to lactose malabsorption. Lactose intolerance can occur at any age, usually in childhood, but also between the ages of 20 to 40. Certain populations, including those of Northern European descent, have an increased rate of developing lactose intolerance as adults. People of Asian and African-Caribbean descent also have high rates of lactose intolerance. Most lactose intolerance is hereditary, and is known as primary lactose intolerance, but there are also secondary causes as well. Secondary causes include having another gastrointestinal condition, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, so inflammation is already present in the body, which can make patients sensitive or intolerant to a variety of sugars. Secondary causes of lactose intolerance resolve when the cause is taken care of, whereas primary lactose intolerance is a permanent condition.

Lactose intolerance differs from other forms of sugar intolerance because there are varying levels of tolerance. Some people can tolerate a small glass of milk without experiencing symptoms. In very rare cases, some people might have complete lactose intolerance from birth and be unable to tolerate even small amounts of lactose like those found in processed foods, such as bread or crackers.

Common symptoms of lactose intolerance and lactose sensitivity are the same, and vary according to the severity of the condition. They include:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • In rare cases, vomiting

If you experience these symptoms after eating dairy or other high in lactose foods/beverages, then you likely have some form of lactose intolerance. Unlike other sugar intolerances, you do not have to give up your favorite dairy products entirely. Although all mammal milk includes some degree of lactose, production methods mean that not all dairy products have high amounts of lactose. You may find that you can tolerate hard cheeses, like cheddar or Swiss, but not milk because they contain lower amounts of lactose. Lactose-free (i.e. Lactaid) milk and dairy products can be found in most grocery stores. You can also find tablets that can be swallowed or chewed to help with digestion of lactose.

Lactose intolerance is sometimes mistaken for irritable bowel syndrome because it has similar symptoms. If avoiding lactose does not resolve your symptoms, then you may have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or another digestion related condition. Your doctor may order further testing to determine the cause of your symptoms.

For those of you or your children who have already been diagnosed with lactose intolerance, connect with one another and share your experience, strength and hope by using the hashtag #sugarspoonie.

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