How Do I Know if I'm Lactose Intolerant?

Lactose intolerance is something that affects many people, but how do you know if you've got it? People who are lactose intolerant are unable to digest lactose; a type of sugar mainly found in milk and dairy products. This is due to a lactase deficiency. The lactase in your small intestine should break down the lactose into glucose (blood sugar), which is then absorbed into your bloodstream. If there is not enough lactase, however, the unabsorbed lactose moves through your digestive system to your colon (large intestine).
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Bacteria in the colon break down the lactose, producing fatty acids and gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane. The breakdown of the lactose in the colon, and the resulting acids and gases that are produced, cause the various symptoms of lactose intolerance:
  • Flatulence (wind)
  • Stomach cramps/pain
  • Bloated stomach
  • Stomach gurgling/rumbling
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
If you regularly suffer from any of these symptoms after consuming dairy products then you should contact your doctor, who will be likely to suggest you try an elimination test; this involves removing all forms of lactose from your diet for two weeks and monitoring your symptoms. If your symptoms do disappear during the elimination test, then your doctor will perform a hydrogen breath test to get an official diagnosis.
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A sample of your breath will be tested before the actual test begins to find out how much hydrogen is present, then you will be given a drink of lactose solution. After this, your breath will be retested regularly over a few hours to see if the level of hydrogen changes after consuming the lactose solution. If your breath contains a large amount of hydrogen...more than 20 ppm (parts per million) after consuming the lactose solution, it's likely that you are lactose intolerant because lactose intolerance can cause the bacteria in the colon (large intestine) to produce more hydrogen than normal. Alternatively, your doctor may perform a lactose tolerance test.
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This also involves drinking a lactose solution, but instead of the hydrogen n your breath being tested, a sample of blood will be taken from your arm and tested to see how much glucose it contains. If you are lactose intolerant, your blood sugar levels will either rise very slowly, or not at all because of your intestines being unable to break down the lactose into glucose.
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Many people are undiagnosed as they simply put the stomach discomfort (and other symptoms) associated with lactose intolerance down to Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), but getting a diagnosis of lactose intolerance can help because, unlike IBS, you will know what foods to rule out to avoid the symptoms. If you are diagnosed as lactose intolerant then  it's important to avoid milk and other dairy products, such as butter, ice cream, chocolate and cheese. Lactose is also often present in other food items such as:
  • Cakes
  • Biscuits
  • Bread
  • Soup
Words to look out for on food labels are:
  • Lactose (obviously)
  • Milk
  • Whey
  • Curds
Living without lactose in your diet can initially be quite daunting as you will find that you have to check the food labels on every item you eat, but after a while it will become a routine for you, and you will begin to know what you should avoid.   Picture credit for featured image:   Sources:

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