Lactose intolerance is characterized by an inability to digest lactose, which is the primary sugar in milk and dairy products. The condition causes symptoms like stomach aches, bloating, gas, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, flatulence, tummy rumbles and other gastrointestinal problems after eating or drinking milk or dairy products.
It is usually a result of insufficient levels of an enzyme called lactase, which helps break down lactose. The symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on the amount of lactase produced in the small intestine.
Common causes of lactose intolerance include genetics and digestive problems like Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and gastroenteritis. The problem may also develop naturally with age, when the small intestine starts making less lactase.
Lactose intolerance is often confused with a milk allergy. A milk allergy is an overreaction of the immune system to the proteins in milk.
Unlike those who are allergic to milk, most people who are lactose intolerant can have small amounts of lactose without any problem. Thus, they need not avoid milk and milk products completely. This lactose threshold, however, varies from one person to another.
There is no cure for lactose intolerance. The best way to deal with it is to limit your intake of milk, milk products and foods containing lactose. Be aware that milk and lactose are also in many prepared foods that are not in the dairy aisle, such as cereals, cream soups, non-dairy creamers, sherbet, pancakes and others.
Needless to say, you also need to consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. Your doctor may refer you to a dietician for further education and advice.
Here are the top 10 ways to help you deal with lactose intolerance.
1. Find Your Lactose Threshold
The degree of lactose intolerance differs from one person to another. To assess your level of intolerance, avoid consuming any lactose for 3 to 4 weeks to eliminate it from your system. Then, start adding back small amounts of milk or cheese in your diet and monitor your symptoms carefully to determine the amount that you can handle without any problems.
In a study by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2010, researchers found that most people with lactose intolerance or lactose maldigestion can, on average, tolerate up to 12 grams of lactose as a single dose, especially when taken with other food.
The study noted that a precise threshold that works for all, however, cannot be determined due to variations in individual tolerances.
So when eating or drinking dairy products, choose small servings of up to 4 ounces or 1/2 cup at a time. It is less likely to cause gastrointestinal problems. Drinking milk with other foods can also lessen the problems by slowing the digestive process.
2. Yogurt & Cheese
Most people with lactose intolerance can tolerate products like yogurt and hard cheese in moderation because they have lower levels of lactose. Full-fat dairy products usually have lower amounts of lactose compared to low-fat and non-fat varieties. Fat slows the passage of lactose in the digestive system.
- Eat probiotic yogurt with live cultures. The live, active bacterial cultures will help break down lactose and relieve gastrointestinal discomfort. Greek yogurt, too, has less lactose than regular yogurt because much of its whey protein is strained out in its processing. Frozen yogurt may not be helpful, though.
- You can also eat full-fat cottage cheese and aged hard cheeses, such as cheddar and Swiss cheese.
Like yogurt, kefir can also be used as a probiotic for a healthy digestive system. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, researchers found that yogurt and kefir can help improve lactose digestion and reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
The participants reported that drinking kefir reduced the frequency of flatulence by more than half when compared with milk.
Kefir has a wide array of live, active bacterial cultures that help break down lactose in the digestive tract. Plus, it is a good source of calcium, potassium and protein.
Simply drink 1/2 cup of kefir milk daily and gradually increase the amount depending on how much you can tolerate without developing problems.
4. Milk Substitutes
Look for healthy substitutes for milk, such as coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, oat milk, hemp milk and others. If you are not used to the taste of these alternatives, start by adding any of these as a replacement for milk in your puddings and other baked goods.
Plus, start with small amounts and opt for calcium and vitamin D-fortified plant-based milks. You can also substitute butter with coconut oil and even fruit purees like applesauce, banana or prune.
Note: At times, non-dairy options may also cause gastrointestinal problems as they may contain guar gum (a common food additive that may sometimes cause digestive problems) to add thickness.
5. Lactase Supplement
Lactase supplements help replace the lactase enzyme that your body is not producing. This will help you digest lactose, thus reducing GI problems. The supplements are to be taken when eating foods containing lactose.
- Take 1 to 3 lactase tablets before eating foods containing lactose.
- You can also add a lactase supplement (2,000 IU) to milk (500 ml or 2 cups) immediately before drinking it.
Note: These supplements may not be suitable for young children and pregnant women. Plus, supplements may not work for everyone.
6. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar can help reduce lactose intolerance as it aids digestion, especially in the initial stages. It also works as an effective remedy to neutralize stomach acid and other digestive problems caused by lactose intolerance.
- Mix 1 tablespoon of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar in a glass of water.
- Drink it daily for at least a few weeks.
Ginger is an excellent home remedy to get relief from gastrointestinal problems caused by lactose intolerance or simply indigestion as it reduces nausea and abdominal gas.
- Add 1 teaspoon of freshly grated ginger to a cup of boiling water.
- Let it simmer for a few minutes.
- Strain the solution. You can also add a little lemon juice and honey to it.
- Drink up to 3 cups of ginger tea daily to relieve symptoms.
Chamomile tea can also help relieve discomfort caused by lactose intolerance. It neutralizes stomach acid and reduces bloating. Another added benefit is that it promotes relaxation.
- Add 2 teaspoons of dried chamomile flowers to a cup of hot water.
- Cover, let it steep for about 5 minutes and then strain.
- Drink this herbal tea a few times a day.
9. Get Needed Nutrients
As milk and dairy products are a major source of several nutrients, especially calcium, limiting their intake can be a drawback for your nutritional needs. Calcium is essential for healthy teeth and bones. Thus, you need to explore other options and make smart food choices to include other sources of nutrients in your diet.
- Eat whole grains, beans, lentils, green leafy vegetables (like spinach, collards and broccoli), soy products, blackstrap molasses, nuts and seeds, dried fruits and calcium-fortified juices to enrich your body with essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids.
- In addition, consult your doctor about taking calcium and vitamin D supplements.
10. Check Product Labels
Packaged and processed foods can be hidden sources of lactose. Check the nutrition labels closely to see if they contain milk, milk by-products, dry milk solids or non-fat dry milk powder.
Instant soups, breakfast cereals, candies, non-dairy creamers, salad dressings, margarine, processed meats, breads and other baked goods often contain milk and lactose.
Plus, you can opt for lactose-free or lactose-reduced products available at most supermarkets.