What is lactose intolerance?
Lactose is a sugar mostly found in milk and dairy products. People who are lactose intolerant are not able to break down lactose into glucose and galactose. This means that whenever lactose is consumed the body has no means to deal with it and it wants to get rid of it violently. By doing this, there are typical symptoms occurring that range from mild to severe.
- Abdominal pain/ cramps
Every person is different and, hence, not everybody experiences the lactose adventure the same way.
I am pretty sure my whole family is lactose intolerant… however, none of them have strong symptoms and being Swiss there is no way one would voluntarily give up all the cheese and chocolate that surround us!
How come the body is not able to digest lactase?
The enzyme called lactase is produced by the small intestine. We speak of lactose intolerance when our body is not able to produce lactase and we, therefore, experience the above mentioned symptoms.
Where does the intolerance come from?
There are three types of lactose intolerance
Primary Lactose Intolerance is the most common cause of lactose intolerance. People develop it over the years as the production of lactase decreases. As one gets older the symptoms worsen due to the constant decrease in lactase activity.
Secondary Lactose Intolerance can occur during or after an illness or surgery that removes part of the small intestine. The lactase production gets slowed down or stopped all together. If this was the only cause of the intolerance it is possible for some to reverse the damages and become lactose tolerant. However, for others this is not the case and the intolerance may become less dominant but will never disappear completely.
Congenital Lactose Intolerance is the least common cause and a rare disorder. This happens when a baby is born with lactose intolerance. The defective gene must be present in the family history and passed onto the child by the parents. If both, mother and father, carry that disorder than the child has a very strong intolerance and is most probably not able to digest the mother’s breast milk. It is also possible that only on parent carries the disorder which makes the intolerance less sever.
I am lactose intolerant. What now?
If you have just found out that you are lactose intolerant take a 1 month lactose break. Do not consume any kind of lactose. Besides the obvious sources there are many hidden sources of lactose:
- Frozen food
- Baking mixes
- Processed meat (e.g sausages)
- Instant soups
- Salad dressings
- Ready to eat meals
For the first few weeks I suggest to check every time the ingredient list of the product you are about to toss in your basket. I checked once the list of canned olives… and surprise surprise lactose was used to conserve. Another personal shock was when I discovered my precious swiss drink Rivella is based on lactic acid!!
So never think that a product has obviously no lactose because they do not look very “milky”.
Obvious sources of lactose?
- Ice cream
Is there a cure?
Well it’s not that depressing. There are pills that contain the enzyme lactase and when consumed they help digest the lactose.
If you ask doctors or pharmacists they will say that it does not matter how often you consume them you should not be experiencing any symptoms.
If you ask me… I say try to avoid taking them as often as possible. I say this because while the pills do help I still get some minor symptoms the following few days. Another problem with those pills is that some experimenting is necessary with the lactase dosage until you can estimate how many you might need for which food in order to enjoy without regretting it later on.
I also strongly suggest that during the first month to not use the lactase enzyme which means no cheat meals whatsoever.
Does this mean I will never again be able to enjoy milk regret free?
There are so many people with this intolerance that the market has made huge steps towards helping us. Each country is differently in its supply. In Switzerland I can find lactose free milk, yogurt, cheese, chocolate, ice cream, cottage cheese, cream and many more products. As you can see I have a lot to choose from. While other countries do not have such a wide selection of lactose free products there for sure is lactose free milk and soy products (which in my opinion are great substitutes).
Let’s sum up
- Learn what foods contain lactose
- Pay attention to the amount of lactose you are consuming
- If possible buy lactose free products
- Use lactase enzyme pills/drops for emergencies
Lastly, I just want to make sure that everyone understands that lactose intolerance is not the same as dairy allergy! People with dairy allergy are in a totally different situation and cannot consume any kind of dairy; lactose free or not.