How to Stop Lactose Intolerance Pain

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest significant amounts of lactose, the major sugar found in milk and milk products.

Lactose intolerance is caused in part by a shortage of lactase, an enzyme produced by the cells that line the small intestine. Lactase breaks lactose down into the simple forms of sugar, glucose, and galactose, so they can be absorbed and used by the body.

A young woman eating yoghurt
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Infants have the highest levels of lactase, which helps them digest their mother's milk. In about 70% of the world's population, a genetic trait causes lactase levels to start irreversibly decreasing after weaning. By adulthood, most lactase activity is lost.

Although the decline in lactase activity affects the majority of the population, not everyone has symptoms of lactose intolerance after consuming normal amounts of lactose.

Whether or not people develop symptoms appears to be linked to the ability of a certain type of beneficial bacteria, called lactic acid bacteria, to break down lactose.

Lactose Intolerance Symptoms

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include:

  • Gas
  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea

Undigested lactose causes diarrhea by drawing excessive amounts of water into the intestines. That leads to the production of hydrogen, which in turn causes gas and bloating.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance typically begin between 30 minutes and two hours after you ingest lactose and continue until it's out of your system—which can be as long as 48 hours later.

Lactose Intolerance and Ethnicity

In the United States, groups most likely to have problems with lactose absorption are:

  • Black people
  • Native Americans
  • Asian Americans
  • Latinx

People of European descent are least likely to be lactose intolerant.

How to End Lactose Intolerance Pain

The best way to manage lactose intolerance symptoms is to prevent them by avoiding foods that cause them. However, if you do eat or drink something that contains lactose, you can take steps to reduce the symptoms it causes. You may find help with over-the-counter treatments for the specific symptoms you're experiencing. For example:

Prevention

So far, scientific support for the claim that supplements can treat lactose intolerance is lacking, but several of them are in common use.

Acidophilus and Probiotics

Lactic acid bacteria in the intestines breaks lactose down into short-chain fatty acids and other substances that can be absorbed by the colon. They are available in supplement form as capsules, tablets, or powders in the refrigerated section of health food stores, grocery stores, drug stores and online.

There are many different types of lactic acid bacteria. The types used most often for lactose intolerance include:

In a 2000-2002 survey of 61,587 people aged 50 to 76 years that was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, acidophilus for lactose intolerance was found to be one of the top reasons people used a specific supplement for a health condition.

In a systematic review published in 2005 in the Journal of Family Practice, however, researchers searched randomized controlled trials published between 1966 and 2002. Out of the 90 studies that were found, only 10 articles met their inclusion criteria. Three out of nine studies found that probiotics reduced breath hydrogen levels and three had both positive and negative results. The breath hydrogen test is a non-invasive test that may be used to help assess lactose intolerance, based on the finding that people with lactose intolerance exhale increased levels of hydrogen gas.

When the researchers looked at symptoms, one out of seven studies showed a significant reduction in symptoms, another had both positive and negative results, and five studies showed no benefit. Although the results of the review appear to indicate mixed results for reducing breath hydrogen and poor results at reducing symptoms, it's important to know that each study used a different type of lactic acid bacteria, a different concentration, and a different product.

Yogurt

In alternative medicine, yogurt containing live active bacteria is believed to help lactose digestion. When yogurt is consumed, bile acids disrupt the cell wall of the bacteria in yogurt. This releases the enzyme beta-galactosidase (related to lactase) into the intestines, where it can enhance lactose digestion.

Acidophilus Milk

Acidophilus milks are made by adding Lactobacillus acidophilus to cold milk. Many of the studies that have looked at acidophilus milks for lactose digestion have found no improvement. Researchers have speculated that it may be because the acidophilus products used in the studies did not contain enough live acidophilus.

Lactase Supplements

Tablets containing lactase can be taken with lactose-containing foods. For many people, lactase supplements are only needed for larger quantities of lactose. If a certain type of lactase supplement doesn't work, it may be worthwhile to try other brands. Some people find the tablet form works better than the chewable form.

Diet

It's quite common for people to avoid lactose-containing foods completely, but that usually isn't necessary and may contribute to calcium deficiency.

Some dietary strategies for people with lactose intolerance include:

  • Drink less than one cup of milk at a time.
  • Eat milk and milk products with meals rather than alone.
  • Try reduced-lactose milk.
  • Try yogurt instead of milk.

Safety and Precautions

Supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label.

Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements has not been established in people who are pregnant or nursing, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications. You can get additional tips on using supplements.

If you're considering the use of supplements or any other form of alternative medicine, talk with your healthcare provider first. Keep in mind that alternative medicine should not be used as a substitute for standard care.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

If you have just developed symptoms that could point to lactose intolerance, it's important to consult with your healthcare provider. You should make an appointment if you have:

  • A change in your bowel habits
  • Worsening constipation, diarrhea, or gas
  • Heartburn that keeps you from sleeping
  • Other symptoms that concern you or negatively impact your life

Lactose intolerance can also be caused by medications or by an underlying condition that damages cells lining the intestines, such as:

When to Get Emergency Treatment

Experiencing any of these digestive symptoms warrants a trip to the emergency room:

  • Sudden or severe stomach pain
  • Vomiting up blood or dark flecks
  • Black or bloody stools
  • Severe or persistent constipation
  • Inability to keep anything down

Frequently Asked Questions

How common is lactose intolerance?

Among adults in the United States, about 30 million experience some lactose intolerance by the time they reach age 20.

Can lactose intolerance increase as you age?

Yes, people tend to start showing signs of lactose intolerance at a young age and the symptoms get worse with age. You may also notice lactose intolerance at an older age when you did not have this issue previously, due to the normal decrease in lactase enzyme that occurs with age.

A Word From Verywell

Although it's too soon to recommend supplements in the treatment of lactose intolerance, increasing your intake of probiotic-rich foods may help enhance your overall health. Talk to your healthcare provider about any concerning symptoms and possible treatments before starting anything new.

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