Characteristics of lactose intolerance

Lactase deficiency problems

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance or milk intolerance is the inability to metabolize (digest) lactose from milk and other dairy products.

Lactose intolerance should not be confused with galactosemia. In this case, it is a disorder that occurs when galactose can not be metabolized, so it is stored in the body, which can cause irreparable damage to certain body organs

  • Galactosemia, unlike lactose intolerance, has long-term repercussions.

Causes of lactose intolerance

milkLactose intolerance is the inhability to digest milk well

Milk contains a sugar, called lactose. For this sugar to be digested, it must be broken down into galactose and glucose. This process is performed by an enzyme called lactase.

Deficiency in the enzyme lactase is what determines that the milk is not digested well causing symptoms of poor digestion of this food.

Why is lactase deficiency produced?

There are three causes that can cause a deficiency or malfunction of the enzyme lactase. They are the following:

  • Primary deficiency of lactase

  • Secondary lactase deficiency

  • Congenital deficiency to lactase

Characteristics of primary deficiency of lactase or permanent lactose intolerance

Breastfeeding mother and child

While they are being fed with milk, babies or children are able to produce lactase, an enzyme which is necessary to digest milk well

Primary deficiency of lactase is the main cause that produces a poor digestion of milk. Most of the offspring of mammalian animals possess the lactase enzyme when they nurse from their mothers. When they stop breastfeeding, this production stops, so that the milk can not be digested well.

Humans are also capable of producing lactase when they nurse from their mothers or drink prepared milk. As they stop breastfeeding, lactase stops occurring in a greater or lesser proportion depending on the type of population.

Human populations that have a greater tradition of milk consumption have achieved that many of their individuals are able to continue producing this enzyme when they stop breastfeeding, so that they tolerate milk well throughout their lives. On the contrary, those cultures whose inhabitants have traditionally consumed less milk are less likely than their adult individuals to digest milk well.

Thus, for example, it has been proven that white children begin to be lactose intolerant at 5 years of age, while black children usually start at 2 years of age. The populations of northern Europe tolerate milk better than African or Asian. It is estimated that only 1% of Swedes have primary lactase deficiency, while 83% of the inhabitants of Central Africa are primary deficient. In Spain it is estimated that the proportion goes up to 15% and in Mexico to 83%.

Characteristics of secondary lactase deficiency or non-permanent lactose intolerance

Lactase is produced in the villi of the small intestine. Some diseases or products can affect this part of the body and decrease the production of the enzyme lactase. Once the area is recovered, the person can continue producing this enzyme again.

Among the many cases that can lead to this type of deficiency we have, for example:

  • Gastrointestinal infections

  • Medications such as antibiotics or salicylic acid

  • Small bowel problems

  • Very strong diarrhea, etc.

  • Celiac disease (intolerance to gluten) is considered to also produce a non-permanent intolerance to lactose. This disease damages the villi of the small intestine and may cause malabsorption of lactose. However, when these patients stop eating gluten, the area is recovered and the milk is again accepted.

Characteristics of congenital deficiency to lactase or inherited intolerance to lactose

This is a problem of genetic origin that prevents the production of lactase from birth.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance

Many times the symptoms of lactose intolerance are confused with those of irritable bowel syndrome.

The main symptoms of lactose intolerance are due to the accumulation of lactose in the colon because it can not be absorbed in the small intestine due to the lack of the lactase enzyme. The bacteria of the colon act on the lactose, proliferating and producing inadequate fermentations that are responsible for most of the symptoms of this intolerance.

The main symptoms are:

  • Regular diarrhea with some sudden episodes of constipation

  • Flatulence

  • Abdominal pain

  • Gastric cramps

  • Nausea

  • Abdominal swelling

  • Lack of nutrients

  • Etc.

In children or babies, lactose intolerance can have more serious repercussions, such as rhinitis, atopic dermatitis, asthma, poor growth or weight loss.

Can lactose intolerance be prevented?

Lactose intolerance can not be prevented. The only solution is to dispense or reduce those foods that contain lactose, replacing them with other alternatives.

If it is a permanent intolerance, the substitution is permanent, while in transient intolerance milk can be reintroduced once the problem is solved.

Diagnosis of lactose intolerance

The diagnosis is made through a series of medical tests, such as blood tests, breath hydrogen test or intestinal biopsy.

In the case of children, the stool acid test is used.

* Related information: Intolerance to lactose diet

punto rojoMore information on milk problems .

This article was endorsed by Elisenda Carballido - Dietitian nutritionist. Postgraduate in Phytotherapy and master in Nutrition and Metabolism.
Written by Editorial Botanical-online team in charge of content writing

22 April, 2019

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