Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Lactose Intolerance

Milk and other dairy products are not only delicious but they are an important part of a healthy diet, providing youir body with necessary nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. 
You or someone you know may have been told that they are lactose intolerant, and thus avoid drinking milk and eating dairy products.

This is a common easy solution to reduce the symptoms associated with the inability to digest dairy. But it is not the only option; many people can actually reverse their lactose intolerance. Let’s break it down….

Lactose is a sugar that is mainly found in milk, and is broken down by an enzyme called lactase or beta-galactosidase. 

~Sidenote: Terms that end with “–ase” are almost always enzymes - that is, a protein with catalytic activity to link two molecules together, break a molecule apart, or both. ~ Similarly, terms that end with “-ose” are almost always sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose – but be careful because sucralose is not a sugar but an artificial sweetener) ~

There are three main causes for issues associated with milk consumption. The first and most severe is an allergy to cow milk. Milk Allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance, as this is an immune mediated response where the body mounts an allergic reaction to the proteins in milk. This can be caused by cow, goat, or even soy milk. 
The second is a genetic mutation causing Lactase Deficency. This means that your cells cannot produce enough lactase to breakdown the lactose from your diet. 
Third, the topic of this post, is a diet induced reduction in lactase production. In individuals with the genetic ability to form lactase, the enzyme levels may drop when they have not been consuming dairy on a regular basis. 
Simply put, the more lactose you consume – the more lactase you produce. If you eat milk products on a regular basis you will produce more lactase. (Here is a fun video that explains why: http://youtu.be/oBwtxdI1zvk)

When your body isn’t producing enough lactase to breakdown the amount of lactose you consume, you may exhibit symptoms characteristic of ‘lactose intolerance’. These symptoms often include indigestion, stomach upset, and gas, among other gastro-intestinal (GI) issues. As these can all be very uncomfortable and disruptive most people experiencing this will go to the doctor and are told they are lactose intolerant. They then restrict their lactose intake to prevent the symptoms. This is a good fix for someone who does not care for dairy, but those who still enjoy cheese, ice cream or other milk products might find the change difficult or upsetting.

There is hope however; since most healthy individuals have the capacity to change their lactase production. Many people who become lactose intolerant are those who have not eaten much dairy for a period of time and later, when they have some, they develop symptoms.
Therefore if you become lactose intolerant, you can reverse it! 
However, if you are allergic to milk or have a genetic deficency this method will be of no help and could be dangerous; this is for those who have the machinery to produce lactase, but have lowered their production by lowering their lactose ingestion.

It likely won’t be pleasant, and it will likely take a few weeks, but it can be done. The longer it has been since cutting back on dairy products the harder this will be.
It is truly simple too, just drink some milk, or eat some cheese/yogurt/ice cream, etc.
Make sure you start very slow with a half a glass or less a day. When a small amount of dairy no longer bothers you try increasing it a bit. Continue in this fashion until you stop experiencing the symptoms and body can produce enough lactase to breakdown the lactose you consume. 
One study provides evidence for including yogurt as a way to improve symptoms, since the bacteria in yogurt will help you break lactose down.
You may not be able to eat a grilled cheese sandwich a bowl of ice cream and a tall glass of milk all in one sitting, but you should be able to get to a point where you don’t need to worry about how much lactose you are consuming.

If your intolerance has persisted for a long time or is severe, only try this under physician supervision, and go very slowly, but eventually you should be able to eat your favorite dairy products again! If at any time you feel your symptoms are worsening or you no longer feel comfortable going this route, lower your dairy intake and call your doctor.

I want to stress the fact that those born without the ability to produce lactase, by genetic deficiency, cannot induce lactase production by consuming more lactose, for these individuals it would be a very unpleasant and potentially dangerous thing to attempt. It is also important to note that a cow milk allergy also cannot be altered this way, and consumption of dairy in these individuals is a very bad idea.

To reiterate one more time, increasing your dairy intake in the hopes of reversing lactose intolerance should only be attempted by those who have recently developed symptoms and who wish to be able to eat dairy on a regular basis.

For those of you who have not experienced lactose intolerance, you may be thinking, is there a way to prevent developing it? And simply, yes there is, unless you are genetically predisposed to lactase deficiency, or are allergic to milk, by maintaining some level of dairy intake you will continue to stimulate lactase production and prevent drops in enzyme levels.

I hope this is helpful, and I will answer any questions you may have on this topic.

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