How much do you need?
Most people need between one thousand to thirteen hundred milligrams of calcium every day. An eight ounce glass of whole milk contains 291 milligrams of calcium, a good start toward obtaining your daily requirement. Many people, however, have to rely on calcium-fortified foods like orange juice and cereal to get enough of the mineral because they are lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest significant amounts of lactose, the natural sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Close to 50 million American adults are lactose intolerant, with certain ethnic and racial populations more widely affected than others. The disorder is more common in some ethnic groups than in others. As many as 75 percent of all African-American, Jewish, Native American, and Mexican-American adults, and 90 percent of Asian-American adults are lactose intolerant. The condition is least common among people of northern European descent.
Not enough lactase
Lactose intolerance results from a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which is normally produced by the cells that line the small intestine. Lactase breaks down lactose into simpler forms that can then be absorbed into the blood stream. When there is not enough lactase to digest the amount of lactose consumed, the results may include nausea, cramps, bloating, gas, and diarrhea, which begin about 30 minutes to two hours after eating or drinking foods containing lactose. Lactose intolerance occurs in adults when their lactase production decreases as their diet becomes more varied and less reliant on milk. It can also occur when lactase production decreases after an illness, surgery or an injury to the small intestine. It’s also possible for babies to be born with lactose intolerance. Infants with congenital lactose intolerance are intolerant of the lactose in their mothers’ breast milk and have diarrhea from birth. These babies will require a formula that is lactose free.
One of the primary risk factors for developing osteoporosis, a fairly common disease which causes your bones to become weak and easy to break, is not getting enough calcium in your diet. Since dairy products like milk are a major source of calcium, you might assume that people with lactose intolerance who avoid dairy products could be at an increased risk for osteoporosis. However, research exploring the role of lactose intolerance in calcium intake and bone health has produced some conflicting results. Some research studies have found that people with lactose intolerance are at a higher risk for osteoporosis, while others have shown the opposite. Regardless of these results, people with lactose intolerance should follow the same basic strategies to build and maintain healthy bones, including getting enough calcium. This includes eating a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D, getting plenty of exercise and not drinking or smoking to excess.
Control the symptoms
There is no cure for lactose intolerance but there are ways to control the symptoms of lactose intolerance by modifying your diet and using special products like lactose free milk. Most people with lactose intolerance can enjoy some milk products without symptoms. You may even be able to increase your tolerance to dairy products by gradually introducing them into your diet. If you want to drink milk, drink it in small servings, two to four ounces at a time, and always with a meal. The smaller the serving, the less likely it is to cause gastrointestinal problems, and enjoying it with a meal slows the digestive process, so you reduce your chance of experiencing difficulties. You may well be able to tolerate cultured milk products, such as yogurt, because the bacteria used in the culturing process naturally produce the enzyme that breaks down lactose. However, some yogurts have milk added back after fermentation and may cause problems.
There are certain supplements a person with lactose intolerance can take to ease or prevent the symptoms of this discomfort. Lactase enzyme tablets contain the enzyme that breaks down lactose, reducing the amount your body must digest on its own. You can take tablets just before a meal or snack. Improvement of symptoms may vary from one person to another, but tablets do help many people. Calcium supplements are helpful for many people, especially if you are unable to eat dairy products. Probiotics are living organisms present in the intestines that help maintain a healthy digestive system. Probiotics are also available as active cultures in some yogurts and as supplements in capsule form. These are sometimes used for gastrointestinal conditions such as diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. They may also help your body digest lactose. Probiotics are generally considered safe and may be worth a try if other methods don’t help.
Trusted by thousands of listeners every week, T. Glenn Pait, M.D., began offering expert advice as the host of UAMS’ “Here’s to Your Health” program in 1996. Dr. Pait began working at UAMS in 1994 and has been practicing medicine for over 20 years.