Lactose intolerance is a condition caused by a lack of an enzyme called lactase, which, in turn, causes the body to be unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products.
Lactase is normally produced by cells lining the small intestine where it breaks lactose down into a form that can be absorbed by the blood. A lack of lactase can cause uncomfortable symptoms for some people. Those who do exhibit the symptoms are said to be lactose intolerant.
Thirty to 50 million Americans (adults and children) are lactose intolerant. The disorder affects some populations more than others:
Digestive diseases or injuries to the small intestine can reduce the amount of enzymes produced, and is the usual cause of lactose intolerance in young children. However, most cases of lactose intolerance develop over a period of many years in adults.
Specific treatment for lactose intolerance will be determined by your physician based on:
Although there is not a treatment to improve the body’s ability to produce lactase, symptoms caused by lactose intolerance can be controlled with a proper diet. In addition, lactase enzymes may be suggested by your physician.
Young children with lactase deficiency should be under the care of a physician.
In September of 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines for treating lactose intolerance. These guidelines support the use of dairy foods as an important source of calcium for bone growth and maintenance, as well as of other nutrients needed for growth in children and adolescents.
In the past, it had been recommended that dairy products should be eliminated from the diet to treat lactose intolerance. The new guidelines suggest that dairy foods should be tried to see which ones can be tolerated better than others. While the symptoms of lactose intolerance can be unpleasant, the condition does not damage the body. Thus, dairy foods that cause less disagreeable symptoms should be used in the diet to ensure adequate intake of calcium and other important nutrients.
Calcium is essential for the growth and repair of bones throughout life, and has been suggested as a preventive for other diseases. Because milk and other dairy products are a major source of calcium, lactose intolerant children and adults must be concerned with getting enough calcium in a diet that includes little or no milk.
The recommended daily dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium, released in 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences, varies by age group:
Many nondairy foods are high in calcium, including the following:
Vitamin D is necessary for the body to absorb calcium; therefore, a diet should provide an adequate supply of vitamin D. Sources of vitamin D include eggs and liver, as well as sunlight.