If You're Lactose-Intolerant, You're Normal
Many of us who experience a sensitivity to lactose found in dairy products have a tendency to think of ourselves as abnormal — that our lactose-intolerance is a flaw or aberration that the majority of adults don't have. Well, if you feel embarrassed to be whipping out that lactase pill (commonly known under the brand name of Lactaid) every time you want to enjoy a slice of New York cheesecake, rest assured that the majority of the world commiserates with you. Lactose-intolerance is not abnormal. It is, in fact, the norm for 70% of the world's adults, according to a report published in the journal Pediatrics in 2006.
The lactose in milk and milk products is digested in our bodies by an enzyme called lactase, which is found in the small intestine. While some young children can be sensitive to lactose, lactose-intolerance seems to occur more frequently in older children, adolescents, and adults. This is because as humans are weaned, the amount of lactase produced by our bodies decreases, causing "lactase deficiency." This is an entirely normal part of growing and developing.
However, in some populations, particularly those descended from white Europeans, the human body continues to produce lactase, enabling people to continue ingesting dairy into their adulthood. This is known as "lactase persistence," and seems to have developed as an evolutionary response to the domestication of dairy animals. A mutation on the lactase gene in human DNA enables some people to continue to consume dairy products. DNA sequencing on ancient peoples living in European areas 5000-6000 years ago have shown that they did NOT have the lactase persistence gene, suggesting that the gene developed later in response to dairy animal husbandry.
So if you suffer from lactose-intolerance, you are simply part of the vast majority (70%) of humans who have not developed lactase persistence. You join the 72% of Sicilians, 51% of Italians, over 90% of Asians and Native Americans, and many other ethnic groups who tend to be lactose-intolerant. You're not immune even if you're of European descent — 10% of people of European descent may be lactose intolerant.
- If you suspect you might have lactose intolerance, consider whether you have experienced the following symptoms after consuming dairy products:
- abdominal distension
- abdominal cramping
While these symptoms themselves may not indicate conclusively that you have lactose intolerance, you may wish to consider switching to a lactose-free diet for a few weeks to see if that helps to improve your symptoms. Some of these symptoms may indicate that you have a milk allergy or have a secondary lactose intolerance.
Even with decreased amounts of the lactase enzyme in your body, you may be able to digest small amounts of dairy products. You may be able to tolerate small amounts of milk and dairy products without developing symptoms (it is the extra lactose that is not broken down by your body that causes symptoms). Some lactose-intolerant people find that they are better able to digest yogurt (as the bacteria helps to break down some of the lactose). Aged cheeses also tend to have a lower lactose content than fresh cheeses. You may also wish to try lactose-free milk and dairy products, or take a lactase-replacement pill when you consume dairy products.
Even though lactose-intolerance is common throughout the world, studies have shown that milk provides calcium and other vitamins and minerals that are important to your health. Many people who do not consume dairy do not consume adequate amounts of calcium and other minerals, leading to an increased risk of osteoporosis. If you choose not to consume dairy products, or to consume less, an alternative source of calcium and other nutrients should be considered, in conjunction with your doctor's advice.