The Only Way to "Cure" Lactose Intolerance
In adulthood, about 65% of people experience a reduced ability to digest lactose. In other words, for the majority of adults, to varying degrees, drinking milk and eating dairy products triggers a variety of unpleasant and uncomfortable gastrointestinal issues.
I am mildly lactose-intolerant. If I drink a glass of milk with my cookie my gut revolts, and within thirty minutes, it starts to protest loudly and painfully. The problem is, I really like that milk with my cookie (and in my cereal, and in my coffee, and so on...) so to avoid depriving myself, I searched for a cure. I consulted with many experts (doctors, nutritionists, homeopathic practitioners, etc.) and found solutions that work for me, which I share with you here.
A note on self-diagnosis: So many people follow fitness gurus and buy in to popular dietary trends that insist that dairy (or gluten, or sugar, or any other dietary villain du jour) is the source of all your problems, but it is irresponsible, foolish, and risky to follow blindly without doing due diligence. Your doctor can run a simple test to find out if you have enough of the enzyme lactase in your small intestine to handle dairy. If you don't do what you can to get a proper diagnosis, then you may actually be ignoring and exacerbating the real problem.
If you have an allergy, if you test positive for lactose intolerance, or if your reaction is severe, you should follow your doctor's advice. If you have a little difficulty digesting dairy, this article is for you.
Cure Lactose Intolerance in 6 Steps
- Find out if lactose is really the issue. Most reactions to dairy are mistaken for intolerance, often at the expense of another, correct diagnosis. Get the hydrogen breath test from your doctor. The steps below may still help you if you test negative for lactose intolerance but still notice that dairy makes you feel sick.
- Take a break from dairy to "heal and seal" your gut and hit restart on your digestive system. Eliminate milk products entirely from your diet for at least 21 days, but ideally three months.
- Educate yourself. Most lactose-intolerant people can handle some amount of lactose in their diet, and most can ingest about ten grams of lactose daily without repercussions. Learn how to decipher food labels. See the table below to learn the relative lactase levels of common dairy food items.
- Work to heal and improve your digestive system. Diet plays a huge role in shaping the structure and operations of your gut's bacteria. Including probiotics, calcium-rich foods, and vitamins D and K in your daily diet can probably help. Eat fermented foods, a diverse range of vegetables and fruits, and eliminate artificial sweeteners. This article, 10 Ways to Improve Your Gut Bacteria, Based on Science, offers some good advice.
- Reintroduce dairy slowly and methodically. It's entirely up to you to figure out which foods trigger what types of reactions, which are safe for you, and which are not. You may have a severe reaction after drinking a cup of milk, but maybe you can sip 6 oz. without any blowback. Perhaps you can stomach most cheeses, but generic or American cheese sends you down for the count. Start with a yogurt with live and active cultures which can help with lactose malabsorption. Start with a tablespoon and work your way up to a normal serving size. Reintroduce one food at a time and wait 72 hours to gauge your body's reaction. If you experience discomfort, gas, bloating, diarrhea, brain fog, acne, exhaustion, or irritability, then put that food on your do-not-eat list.
- Once your gut is clean, your diet is under control, and you understand your individual lactose limits, you're basically cured. Just keep a handful of over-the-counter lactase enzyme tablets or drops on hand in case of impromptu temptations!
What works for one person may not work for another. Knowing your limits and controlling your symptoms is entirely up to you.
Using Probiotics to Help With Lactose Intolerance
The bacteria in your gut play an important role in your ability to enjoy dairy, and the live, active cultures in probiotics, yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables can probably help you digest polysaccharides.
Lots of armchair health experts swear that probiotics revamp the bacteria in your digestive system. That's not true, but probiotics and fermented dairy do seem to work with your gut's bacteria to improve digestion, and by eating them regularly, you can probably improve (but not eliminate) many of your symptoms.
I suggest you regularly eat yogurt with live cultures (Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus), beneficial bacteria that are effective lactose metabolizers.
Food (100 grams each)
Average Grams of Lactose
Half and Half
Whole Milk Yogurt
Hidden Sources of Lactose
Some foods that seem harmless really aren't. Dairy is used in many products that are considered lactose-free and might be hiding in...
- scrambled eggs,
- chocolate (often made with milk),
- bread and other baked goods like pancakes, waffles, cookies, and boxed baking mixes,
- salad dressings,
- processed meats,
- many restaurant-prepared dishes,
- whey protein powder,
- artificial sweeteners,
- some medications (like birth control pills, quick-dissolve vitamins, or antacids).
If the label lists lactose, whey, curds, milk or its by-products, or dry or powdered milk solids, it might trigger a reaction.
What Else Can I Do?
- Always eat dairy with other foods. You can probably handle lactose better and enjoy larger portions of it if you eat small servings of dairy with other foods evenly-distributed throughout the day.
- Fresh, soft, or young cheese always has more lactose than ones that are hard or aged. As a general rule with dairy, more fat = less lactose. That means low fat and diet versions are less good for you if you're lactose-intolerant.
- Look at the nutrition facts on the label. Since lactose is milk sugar, you'll want to know the amount of sugar per serving. If there's zero sugar, then it has less than half a gram of lactose per serving.
- Coconut, almond, rice, goat milk, and lactose-free milk might be good substitutes, but be careful with soy, as it can mess with your hormones.
- You'll want to pay extra attention to make sure you get enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet.
People who are lactose-intolerant are at higher risk for osteoporosis, or thinning bones.— Yuri A. Saito Loftus, M.D., Mayo Clinic
What Is Lactose Intolerance and Why Do I Suffer From It?
The major reason some people can’t digest dairy products is they lack the enzyme lactase, which is necessary to break down lactose in the small intestine.
The Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance
- bloating/swelling in the abdomen
- abdominal pain/cramping
- nausea, vomiting
- headaches or migraines
- leaky gut
(Symptoms can last from 30 minutes to two days after eating dairy products. However, these are the same symptoms for many other diagnoses, don't use these symptoms for self-diagnosis.)
Am I Really Lactose-Intolerant or Is It Something Else?
Most reactions to dairy are mistakenly diagnosed to be lactose intolerance, but there are many other issues to consider.
- Sensitivity to dairy
- Milk allergy
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn’s disease
- Chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Celiac disease
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- Overuse of laxatives
- Difficulty digesting fructose or sorbitol
- Another allergy or health problem
It's extremely important to get a proper diagnosis. If you settle for the easy answer, the real problem will go undiagnosed and untreated.
Research and Studies
- NIH consensus development conference statement: Lactose intolerance and health.
- The Really BIG List of Lactose Percentages.
- Does Probiotic Yogurt Really Affect Digestion?
© 2017 Jo Kenyon