What Is Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is a condition that occurs when the body does not produce enough lactase, the enzyme that is used to break down lactose, the sugar that is in milk. This makes it difficult for the patient to digest milk or dairy products without having irritating or, in rare cases, debilitating symptoms. Lactose intolerance is fairly common, affecting an estimated 65% of the world’s population. For the most part, it is a relatively harmless condition. In severe cases, if a large amount of dairy is consumed, it can produce exacerbated symptoms that could make the patient very ill.
In most cases, the cause of lactose intolerance is unknown, although many cases are thought to be genetic. Lactose intolerance can also occur as the result of an underlying condition, including, but not limited to the following:
- Crohn’s Disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Coeliac Disease
- Intestinal parasites
- Chemotherapy treatment
- Injury to the small intestine
Primary hypolactasia refers to lactose intolerance that is caused by a genetic deficiency in lactase or a deficiency in lactase with an unknown cause.
Secondary hypolactasia refers to lactose intolerance that occurs when an underlying condition causes lactase deficiency.
Primary congenital alactasia
Primary congenital alactasia is the rarest form of lactose intolerance. It refers to an extreme deficiency in lactase that is present at birth. Infants with primary congenital alactasia cannot even ingest breast milk without becoming ill.
Diagnosing lactose intolerance may take some time, as the symptoms are very common occurrences in other conditions. If your primary care physician feels that you are suffering from lactose intolerance, they may send you to a gastroenterologist, a doctor specializing in the digestive system. Many tests can be done to look for lactose intolerance, with the most common and accurate being a hydrogen breath test. In a hydrogen breath test, the patient is given a lactose solution after fasting for 12 hours. If there is lactase deficiency, the lactose consumption will lead to a hydrogen and methane materializing on the patient’s breath. Other tests for lactose intolerance include blood tests, stool tests and intestinal biopsies. Your doctor may want to do a CT or MRI scan of the abdomen to rule out other issues in the digestive tract.
The most common and effective treatment for lactose intolerance is following a diet that excludes milk and other dairy products. This includes cheese, sour cream, butter, ice cream and yogurt. In very mild cases of lactose intolerance, lactase supplements may help the patient digest dairy products without difficulty.