What It Really Means To Be Lactose Intolerant

If you think you might be lactose intolerant, you're not alone. About 68 percent of the world's population has this digestive disorder, which is caused by not having the ability to digest the sugar found in dairy (via Cleveland Clinic). You need lactase enzymes in your small intestines to digest lactose, and people with lactose intolerance don't have enough of these enzymes.

Babies need milk (either breast milk or formula) and both contain lactose. Babies are usually able to digest lactose and are rarely lactose intolerant from birth. Most babies naturally become lactose intolerant between 2 and 12 years old but, according to a 2012 study in Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterologysome people can digest lactose for life.

Lactose intolerance is different than a milk allergy, which, like other food allergies, can be life-threatening. Lactose intolerance isn't as dangerous, but the symptoms are incredibly annoying and painful (via Food Allergy Research & Education).

Symptoms usually start as early as 30 minutes and up to two hours after consuming lactose, but can sometimes not show up until 48 hours after. If you're lactose intolerant, you can experience bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea, gas, nausea, and occasionally, vomiting (via Healthline). That's enough to ruin anyone's day.

Lactose intolerance — diagnosis and treatment

If you think you might be lactose intolerant, you can make an appointment with your doctor for a diagnosis. Your doctor will ask about your diet and symptoms and can perform some tests. According to Cleveland Clinic, the most common and accurate way to test for lactose intolerance is with a hydrogen breath test. Your doctor will have you drink a high-lactose beverage and then have you breathe into a device. If your hydrogen levels increase, your doctor can diagnose you with lactose intolerance (via American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology).

You can do a home test by avoiding all dairy for two weeks. Don't forget to check food labels that should tell you if they contain milk. If your symptoms go away, you're likely lactose intolerant. The treatment is to avoid dairy foods and drinks. Good news, though! There are a lot of dairy-free alternatives. There is also an over-the-counter enzyme medication that can help you digest lactose. You might be able to digest up to 12 grams of lactose a day, depending on the severity of your lactose intolerance. If you want to, you can try adding back certain dairy products to determine how much you can have (via Hopkins Medicine).