How Do Adults Become Lactose Intolerant?

February 18, 2024

Are you planning a trip to the historic Mayfield Dairy Farms old-fashioned ice cream parlor but have some concerns about enjoying your favorite ice cream? Have you begun to experience unpleasant intestinal issues after eating it? You may be experiencing the symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Physiological Changes with Age

As we age, our bodies begin to reduce production of the enzyme lactase. Lactase is the enzyme the small intestine needs to break down and digest the sugar in milk and milk products, called lactose. Infants produce a lot of lactase enzymes so they can digest milk which is their primary source of nutrients.  As babies grow and other foods are introduced into their diets, their production of lactase decreases. There tends to be a significant drop at about five years of age. The levels of lactase produced between people vary- some produce a lot, some produce little. What remains consistent is that as we age, we all experience decreasing levels of lactase. Lactose intolerance is not seen as a disorder, just a variation in digestive ability that can emerge at any age.

Signs of Lactose Intolerance

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea, and sometimes, vomiting
  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloating
  • Gas

Genetic Factors and Ethnicity

Aside from age, the likelihood of developing lactose intolerance can be influenced by both heredity and ethnicity. If a person’s parents both pass on a particular recessive gene variant to their child, it can increase the child’s likelihood of developing lactose intolerance at some point in life. Many adults begin to experience symptoms between 20 and 30 years of age. The key factor that determines whether the symptoms of lactose intolerance will affect you is if you consume more dairy than your intestine’s level of lactase can process.

One’s ethnicity can also impact their ability to process milk and dairy products. People of African, Asian, American Indian, and Hispanic descent are more likely to experience being lactose intolerant. The issue is less common among Americans with a Northern European heritage.

Secondary Causes and Medical Conditions (beyond natural aging)

Sometimes people suffer from chronic medical conditions or experience a medical issue that can inhibit lactase production causing what is called “secondary lactose intolerance.” Chronic disease, surgery, or injury can also cause it. The good news about secondary intolerance is that it might not be permanent and may subside as the small intestine heals or as a chronic disease is treated more effectively.

Potential Causes of Secondary Lactose Intolerance:

  • Celiac Disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Radiation therapy
  • Small bowel resection (removal of a damaged section)
  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Enterocolitis (inflammation of both bowels)
  • Bacterial overgrowth
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Infection of the intestine (most often in children)

Not everyone experiences the symptoms of lactose intolerance each time they eat dairy. The amount eaten and the type of dairy can make a difference. Many can manage the symptoms through modifications to their diet.

Tips for Managing Lactose in Your Diet:

  1. Try eating only small amounts of milk or milk products and see how your body reacts.
  2. Pair your dairy with other foods as this may reduce your symptoms.
  3. Choose dairy products with naturally lower levels of lactose. Hard cheeses and yogurt have less lactose than plain milk.
  4. Select lactose-free and lactose-reduced dairy products with added lactase which can be found at most stores.
  5. Consider lactase products. Ask your doctor if you should take a lactase enzyme supplement in pill or drop form before consuming dairy.

If you frequently experience the symptoms of lactose intolerance after eating dairy foods, schedule an appointment with your doctor so they can confirm the diagnosis and help you make sure you are getting enough of the vitamins and minerals dairy most often provides.

We at AFC Urgent Care Athens can help get you on the path of improved health. Let us help by making your appointment today.

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