Lactose intolerance is very common worldwide and it's estimated that more than seventy five percent of the world's population is lactose intolerant. If you have lactose intolerance it means that you cannot digest lactose very well and this can cause all kinds of symptoms.

This article explains what lactose is, what the symptoms of lactose intolerance are and what you can do to prevent them.

What is lactose?

Lactose is a sugar that is found in milk. It's is a large sugar molecule that is made up of two smaller (simple) sugar molecules, glucose and galactose.

Lactose is mainly found in dairy products such as cow's milk, sheep's milk, goat's milk, (soft) cheeses, cottage cheese, custard, yoghurt and is also found in whey and other products that contain milk components or milk powder. Lactose is also often used in medication drugs and supplements.

What is lactose intolerance?

To split up lactose into glucose and galactose your body needs an enzyme called lactase. Lactase is produced by your intestines and allows lactose to be digested and absorbed.

However, if your body doesn't produce enough lactase, you cannot digest lactose properly, which can cause mild or severe symptoms.

Lactose intolerance is not to be mistaken for a milk allergy. A milk allergy is an allergic response of the body to the (casein) protein in milk. The symptoms that occur from this are not the result of lactose intolerance but a (hypersensitive) response of the body's immune system.

What causes lactose intolerance?

Most people are born with the ability to digest lactose. Lactose is also found in breast milk which is the most important source of nutrition for new-born babies.

However, the production of lactase in our gut gradually decreases as we age and about 80% of the world's population loses the ability to digest lactose to some degree.

The percentage of people that are lactose intolerant is most prevalent in Africa and Asian countries and less in European and North American populations. If you're African-American, Asian, Hispanic or Native American, you're more likely to have it.

What are the symptoms?

If your body produces too little lactase (lactase deficiency) and cannot properly absorb lactose (lactose malabsorption) than this can lead to all kinds of symptoms. Common symptoms include nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, cramps, painful gas and diarrhea.

These symptoms differ from person to person and depends on how much lactase your body produces and the amount of lactose that you consume. Not everyone suffers from a lactase deficiency and you can also be lactose intolerant without knowing it.

Your body may also make less lactase if your small intestine is injured or you have certain digestive problems, such as Crohn's or celiac disease.

What to do when you are lactose intolerant?

If you get symptoms after eating dairy products or lactose containing products, it is better to limit your intake of these foods or avoid them.

And even if you are not experiencing any major issues, you could experiment with this for a few weeks to see how you feel when you start to remove more lactose from your diet.

Lactose intolerance is really easy to manage and in contrast to common belief, it is actually not necessary to eat dairy products.

Milk and dairy products, however, are a good source of protein and calcium, so if you are lactose intolerant and/or want to avoid dairy products, it is important to get these nutrients from other sources.

Protein can be easily obtained from a variety of plant-based sources such as: quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds and other nuts and seeds and a plant-based protein shake.

Good non-dairy sources of calcium are; dried figs, sesame seeds, almonds, green leafy vegetables, beans, tofu and tempeh. And also most plant-based milk alternatives are often enriched with calcium.

Conclusion

Lactose is a form of sugar that is found in milk and dairy products and is often used in lots of processed foods and (sports) supplements, such as whey and casein.

Most people are born with the ability to digest lactose, but this often decreases as we age. This is referred to as lactose intolerance and can cause many common problems and symptoms.

If you suffer from any symptoms after eating dairy products or products that contain lactose, then there's a good chance that your body isn't capable of digesting it properly.

In this case, it is probably best to limit the amount of lactose in your diet or simply replace it with better lactose-free alternatives.