Lactose Intolerance – Its Symptoms And Causes

Lactose intolerance is the inability of the body to digest and absorb a large sugar molecule, contained in milk and dairy products, called lactose.  The body’s digestive system becomes intolerant to milk and products containing milk, which causes gastrointestinal problems and should not be confused with allergic reactions to milk.

In order for lactose to be absorbed, an intestinal enzyme, lactase, splits the lactose molecule into two smaller sugars, galactose and glucose.  Lactase is present in the cells lining the surface of the small intestine.  A deficiency in lactase is the cause of lactose intolerance because lactose cannot be broken down into a form that the intestines can absorb.

lactose intolerant

What causes lactose intolerance?

The main reason for the cause of lactose intolerance is lactase deficiency, or the complete absence of lactase, which may occur due to one of three reasons:  congenital causes, secondary causes or developmental causes.

• Congenital causes of lactose intolerance

The absence of lactase from birth may occur because of a mutation in a gene that produces the enzyme, with symptoms occurring directly after birth.  Congenital causes for lactase deficiency is extremely rare.

• Secondary causes of lactose intolerance

Secondary lactase deficiency can be caused by certain types of diseases that can destroy the intestinal lining of the small intestine, which in effect destroys the lactase enzymes.  An example is a  celiac disease called celiac sprue.

• Developmental causes of lactose intolerance

A developmental cause of lactase deficiency is the most common in lactose intolerance.  A gradual decrease in the amount of lactase occurs in childhood and continues into adulthood and is called adult-onset hypolacasia.  The propensity to the progressive decrease of lactase is genetic, and is more prevalent in certain ethnic groups, being most commonly found among Asians, affecting in excess of 90% of the inhabitants of some communities.  On the other hand, people from Northern Europe have a low rate of lactose intolerance, less than 5%.  There also occurs a variability in the ages at which lactose intolerance symptoms start to develop.

Lactase deficiency can exist without the symptoms of lactose intolerance as persons with mild deficiencies often do not display any symptoms from milk products.  A diagnosis of lactose intolerance is only made when the deficiency of lactase causes symptoms of lactose intolerance.

What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance are:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Flatulence
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal bloating and distention

What is the treatment for lactose intolerance?

There are various ways to diagnose lactose intolerance, including:

  • Blood glucose test
  • Stool acidity test
  • Eliminating foods containing lactose from the diet
  • Milk challenge
  • Intestinal biopsy

Lactose intolerance is mainly treated by the elimination of lactose from the diet; however, avoidance of milk products can lead to calcium and vitamin D deficiencies which could in turn lead to bone disease, including osteoporosis. Supplements of the enzyme lactase can improve the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Source: WebMD

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