Why am I Lactose Intolerant as an Adult?

February 19, 2024

Are breakfast cheesy grits from Easy Like Sunday or brunch from the South End Leroy Fox a go-to comfort food for you as a child of the American South? Have they recently become less of a comfort?

Perhaps you have grown accustomed to eating foods from your favorite food group, dairy, with abandon. From a habit of having a huge glass of milk for breakfast to two heaping scoops of ice cream for dessert, you love it all! But suddenly, you get the impression that the feeling isn’t mutual. After ingesting one of these favorite treats, your stomach mutinies.

What is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance, or lactose malabsorption, occurs when your body doesn’t make enough of the lactase enzyme to process and digest lactose, the sugar in milk. If you eat more dairy than your body can process, you begin to experience abdominal discomfort. When lactose can’t be broken down the sugar ferments in the intestines and causes significant discomfort.

Signs of Lactose Intolerance

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

Biological Factors and Genetics

Lactose intolerance can develop at any age and can be congenital or secondary. Being of a certain ethnicity can predispose you to becoming lactose intolerant with those least often affected being Americans of Northern European heritage. Those most predisposed to lactose intolerance are of Asian, African, Mexican, and Native American descent.

Lactose intolerance can also be inherited from parents. If both parents pass down a recessive gene variant to a child, it can manifest over time as a drop in lactase production leading to lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance isn’t seen as a disorder but as representing a variation of intestinal function among humans.

Health Conditions and Secondary Causes

Primary lactose intolerance is the most common form of lactose intolerance and occurs when a person is born without the ability to produce lactase or when lactase production drops naturally with age. It is very rare for a baby to be born without the ability to make any lactase; however, premature infants may be born with lower-than-normal lactase levels which they usually outgrow. A person born with a congenital lactose intolerance will never outgrow it, however, changes in their intestinal health may result in some improvements.

Secondary lactose intolerance is a condition that can be brought on by a sudden drop in the production of lactase due to several gastrointestinal medical conditions including chronic disease, surgery, or injury. 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)

What is the Impact of Age on Lactase Production?

It’s important to realize that a drop in lactase production occurs naturally as we age, therefore, it’s helpful to continue to pay attention to how our bodies react after eating dairy. You may find that changes to your diet are needed to manage your symptoms. Some can continue eating dairy with only a slight diet modification, whereas others may find themselves having to cut consumption significantly. Eating dairy with other types of foods and using over-the-counter lactase enzyme boosters can help you continue enjoying what you love. Remember to check food labels as lactose is often an added ingredient in many foods. The symptoms of both lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome are quite similar, so it’s best to get medical confirmation from your doctor as to what is causing your discomfort and to help ensure that you do not become deficient in any of the vitamins or minerals dairy provides.

We here at AFC Indian Trail are here to help you live the healthiest life possible. Make an appointment today for help with what is troubling you.

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