What is Lactose Intolerance? 5 Lactose Sensitivity Symptoms

What is Lactose Intolerance? 5 Lactose Sensitivity Symptoms

1. What is lactose intolerance?

So, what is lactose intolerance, and what are the main lactose sensitivity symptoms?

Lactose, also known as milk sugar, is the main sugar in dairy products. It is a disaccharide formed by one molecule of glucose and one molecule of galactose. However, people cannot absorb lactose.

In order to be able to absorb energy from it, an enzyme called lactase is produced in the small intestine, which breaks down lactose into its basic forms. Then our body absorbs these simple sugars.

Although the inability to consume milk and dairy products (or rather the inability to break down lactose) is called lactose intolerance, this term is very misused. It is important to pay attention to the fact that lactose intolerance is not an allergy!

Intolerance is the result of the inability to break down the sugars present in milk, which results from an enzyme deficiency. It is a biochemical problem!

Milk allergy on the other hand is a negative immune response to the protein in milk and the symptoms are similar to all other allergies and are characterised by hives, swelling, vomiting and difficulty breathing.

The reason is that the small intestine gradually stops producing lactase, as a result of which lactose becomes indigestible. Lactose then passes from the small intestine to the large intestine, where the bacteria cause fermentation of the milk sugar and gas, bloating and diarrhoea are formed.

However, not all people react to lactose in the same way, although both have poor digestibility of lactose. About 65% of the population has lactose intolerance, but taking up to 12 grams of lactose per meal (about a glass of milk) should not cause lactose sensitivity symptoms or, if it will be mild - swelling, heaviness.

2. What foods trigger lactose sensitivity symptoms?

2.1. Milk

One of the main foods that trigger lactose sensitivity symptoms is milk. It is the biological nutrient fluid produced by the mammary glands. Its composition includes water, proteins, lipids, enzymes, carbohydrates, milk fat, caseins, milk sugar called lactose and other substances. 

Its main purpose is to sustain life and support the development of newborns, who cannot take any other food in the initial period after birth.

Milk is the main food containing lactose and people with lactose intolerance should not consume it. In different milks, the dry matter lactose content varies from 4.5% in cow's milk to 8-9% in human breast milk, which accounts for its sweetness. 

There are various brands of lactose-free milk available these days, but you should be careful when purchasing them as they may contain sugar, salt and other flavour enhancers.

2.2. Cheese

Undoubtedly, one of the foods that commonly trigger lactose sensitivity symptoms is cheese.

Cheese is a milk product obtained as a result of biochemical interaction between rennet enzymes and lactic acid enzymes. It has salts, vitamins and proteins in much greater quantities than milk.

Cheese is high in calories and high in nutritional value and contains valuable milk fat and protein, making it an excellent food for active people. Depending on the production process and the ripening time, the protein substances in it can change their quantity, the same applies to the lactose in it. An interesting fact about lactose in cheese is that the whiter and fresher the cheese, the less lactose it contains.

2.3. Yogurt

Yogurt is a fermented milk product with a high solids content, which gives it its texture - and it’s also on the list of most common foods that trigger lactose sensitivity symptoms. 

It consists of fresh milk and sourdough containing the bacteria Lactobacillus Bulgaricus and Streptococcus Thermophilus (according to the original recipe), but in different countries the production of yoghourt is not strictly controlled and in its composition you can find additional sugars, dry milk, swelling agents, etc. .n., but in Bulgaria, which is considered the birthplace of yoghurt, this type of product cannot be called yoghurt, but the name milk-acid product is used for them.

The lactose content of traditional yoghurt is not very high, but lactose-free substitutes can be found. Since lactose-free yoghurt has a significant amount of additives such as sugar, fat and bulking agents, I would recommend consuming a plant-based product.

2.4. Sweets

Do you like sweets? Everyone's favourite summer dessert also has lactose content that may trigger lactose sensitivity symptoms. Ice cream contains milk, cream, eggs and sugar, and its lactose content can be the cause of heaviness or bloating after consuming even a small amount, which are some of the signs of intolerance.

In general, in this column we can include all desserts containing milk, cream, cheese or butter. These are cheesecake, most types of creams, milk and white chocolate, most cakes and biscuits also contain lactose. In case of intolerance, I would again recommend to be careful in your choice or to focus on fruit sorbets, vegetable desserts and dark chocolate.

3. What are the 4 types of lactose intolerance?

3.1. Primary lactose intolerance

The most common lactose intolerance, affecting more than half of the planet's population. The enzyme that breaks down lactose is depleted in the body. Lactase is produced in the human body up to a certain age. 

Once production stops, the stores in the small intestine begin to be depleted, and as a result, the absorption of the lactose sugar becomes impossible. The factors on which this depends are many - from sex, age and blood group to race and climate. In Europeans this can happen around the age of 40-50, while in Africans and Asians the limit is much lower.

3.2. Secondary lactose intolerance

This type of intolerance is temporary and is due to damage to the digestive system and especially the small intestine. It is often the result of disease, poisoning, surgery or as a result of drugs that act aggressively on the lining of the small intestine. 

In the event of intolerance, all dairy products should be restricted for about ten days or until the symptoms subside, after which they should be gradually introduced into the menu. People with diseases of the colon or stomach, Crohn's disease and cancer patients who have undergone chemotherapy are considered more susceptible.

Usually, after the initial lactose sensitivity symptoms subside, the production of lactase in the body is reactivated and within a few days to a few weeks the secondary lactose intolerance disappears. In chronically ill patients, it can be delayed and a consultation with the attending physician is necessary.

3.3. Congenital or developmental lactose intolerance

It is a severe autosomal recessive genetic disease that affects the lactase protein and more precisely its production. It manifests itself with the first breastfeeding of the newborn baby and is diagnosed already in the first days of his life. 

The child is born without any lactase enzymes in the body, which means that it cannot process and absorb milk sugar, and with it almost all the nutrients in breast milk. 

The most common symptoms are persistent diarrhoea, a rash around the mouth, armpits, or groyne, and slow or no weight gain. Investigations will reveal carbohydrate malabsorption, metabolic acidosis, and dehydration, which can become severe and dangerous if not treated promptly. 

These babies are promptly switched to lactose-free formula feeding to avoid the severe consequences of lactose sensitivity symptoms.

If you notice signs of intolerance in your baby as mentioned above, contact your doctor immediately.

3.4. Developmental lactose intolerance

This type of lactose intolerance affects a large proportion of premature babies (about 70% of babies). 

Since the child's body has not fully developed, which includes the small intestine, the production of lactase enzymes has not reached an optimal amount to be able to break down the mother's breast milk, which initially has the highest lactose content among milk. 

There is no reason to worry, because this intolerance is temporary and after reaching full development of the body, it subsides.

Because of this specificity in the nutrition of premature babies, a number of supplements and foods have been developed that doctors recommend or prescribe for babies to go through this period more easily, and reduce the risk for lactose sensitivity symptoms.

4. What are the main lactose sensitivity symptoms? 

Symptoms of lactose intolerance appear up to two hours after consuming dairy products. They can range from mild to severe depending on the amount of lactose ingested and are due to the lack of the enzyme lactase in the intestines, which prevents the absorption of the lactose sugar.

4.1. Abdominal swelling

Abdominal swelling and production of gases are among the first lactose sensitivity symptoms that appear, and unfortunately is often overlooked is abdominal swelling. Any abnormal state of our organs is a sign of an ongoing process and in this case lactose intolerance.

Characteristic of this swelling is that it is located low down in the small intestine and in most cases is accompanied by gas formation in the intestines. It occurs immediately after consuming dairy products or foods containing dairy products.

4.2. Abdominal pains and cramps

Abdominal pain and cramps are due to gas forming in the intestines and usually subside within a few hours. Although not a cause for concern, they could indicate or cause another problem. 

There are a variety of herbal teas, tablets, and home remedies to manage pain and swelling, but it's best to stop dairy products for a while if you're experiencing these symptoms to determine if they're the cause.

4.3. Diarrhoea

Diarrhoea is also one of the most common lactose sensitivity symptoms, with one hundred percent of children with lactose intolerance having it. 

It can be dangerous for both babies and children, as well as for adults, because it can be aggressive and very quickly lead the body to dehydration, and the person himself to hospitalisation and intravenous treatment. 

It appears almost immediately after the consumption of lactose in children and up to an hour in adults and could last for a whole day.

4.4. Nausea and vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are among the rare lactose sensitivity symptoms and signal a more severe form of lactose intolerance. They are accompanied by one or more of the above-mentioned symptoms. 

If you notice repeated nausea or sickness after consuming milk or a milk product, it is important to contact your doctor immediately for the appointment of appropriate tests and a diet, as well as the complete elimination of dairy foods from your diet until the condition is established.

4.5. Skin rashes

Skin rashes appear almost immediately after consuming lactose. They are small, tiny red or flesh-coloured pimples, sometimes in the form of water bubbles. 

They usually appear around the mouth and soft tissues in children and infants, but in adults they can also appear on the arms and neck. This symptom subsides within a day and generally cannot cause other harm to the body.

5. Lactose sensitivity symptoms: conclusion

Lactose intolerance affects every second person in the world, regardless of whether it is temporary or whether the signs are noticeable. At least once in our lives, you and I have had an intolerance, but does this mean that milk is not good for us or that we should completely stop taking it? I don't think so.

On the other hand, with clear and long-lasting signs of intolerance, should we continue to consume dairy products and is it not best to consult a specialist before it gets worse? 

Underestimating this kind of intolerance could worsen the overall health status, as well as contribute to the development of IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the benefits and harms of milk and milk products, and as usual the range of opinions from health experts is so wide that it's better to flip a coin and guess. 

What matters is how your body reacts to lactose and whether it benefits you individually. These are the questions we all need to ask ourselves when it comes to food or food trends. Be sensible and informed and don't underestimate what your body is telling you.