What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest the lactose sugar that comes from dairy products. When lactose intolerant individuals consume milk or milk products, they often feel gassy, bloated and the need to run to the restroom. It is estimated that in the United States, 15% of Caucasians over 50% of Mexican Americans and over 80% of African Americans suffer from lactose intolerance.
What causes lactose intolerance?
Normally, your stomach lining produces an enzyme called lactase which is used to break down lactose, the major sugar in milk. When we are babies, our lactase levels are highest but as we grow older, they get less and less. The less they are, the likely you are to suffer from lactose intolerance. When you drink milk or eat milk products and you don’t produce enough lactase, the lactose is not broken down into absorbable form (sugar, glucose and galactose). The milk passes through your stomach and through to your small intestine undigested, causing bloating, cramps, nausea and diarrhea.
If I am lactose intolerant, do I just have to avoid milk products?
While many people feel this is the best solution, giving up an entire food group is a pretty drastic measure, particularly when dairy products are so important for bone growth in children and bone density in adults. Fortunately, several studies suggest that supplementing the diet with certain probiotics is a safe and effective route to keeping the symptoms under control.
Probiotics, specifically certain strains of lactobacillus acidophilus, work by adhering to the intestinal lining and releasing lactase enzyme needed to digest dairy products.
A 1995 study* whose results were published in The Journal of Dairy Science showed that lactose-intolerant children who drank milk treated with probiotic lactobacillus acidophilus showed a significant reduction in symptoms.
A 1999 review** of hundreds of studies on the health benefits of probiotics found, among other things, that a certain strain of lactobacillus acidophilus has demonstrated consistent positive results against the symptoms of lactose intolerance. The author of this review states: “To date, its probiotic effects have been demonstrated in humans as reducing problems associated with lactose intolerance and as reducing levels of free amines in the intestine, thereby decreasing the risk of colon cancer. These properties make this strain of potential value in several patient populations.”