What does it mean when someone says they are lactose intolerant?

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Milk is what it is all about! Not just milk, but many different dairy products might affect some people negatively, this being the start of the explanation for lactose intolerance when they are unable to digest it quickly.

This phenomenon most commonly appears in an individual’s mid-teens to early 20’s, where they might start to feel increasing discomfort or bloated after consuming even the smallest quantity of dairy.

It is the lactose within the dairy which names this struggle lactose intolerant, or rather the lack of lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down the lactose in your digestive track. Lactose, in essence, is sugar which is found in milk, which when not digested efficiently, causes bowel discomfort and irritation.

No study has yet been able to confirm why this occurs within teenage years, or even at all, but most scientists believe that it is more unnatural to have these enzymes in adulthood than not. There is speculation that in natural growth, the lactase producing gene should automatically ‘switch off’ in adulthood, and it is only by a more recent mutation that this gene remains ‘switched on.’

Lactose intolerance is shown to vary between adults, about the rate at which they continue to produce lactase, with the rate of production itself changing although usually never stopping completely. The effectiveness of the lactose also comes into measure with it becoming less able to break down the lactose, allowing it to travel through the digestive tract and the intestine until it reaches the colon. Once in the colon, the lactose undergoes a kind of fermentation by the present bacteria, creating gas which results in the feelings of discomfort and pain, as well as diarrhea.

This explanation leads one to think that none of us should naturally be consuming dairy and should, therefore, cut it out completely, although this isn’t necessarily the case. Studies have shown that regular consumption of dairy, by lactose intolerant individuals, might decrease the impact of the lactose. The another argument for the continued consumption of dairy is the numerous health benefits it offers us. Dairy is high in calcium, without which our bone strength and growth would become in question, and although this could be supplemented with other foods, no common foods provide even a fraction of the calcium provided by dairy.

Love milk, but hate the discomfort? Well, there is a possible solution, regardless of how to sever your dairy ‘allergy.’ Lactase is now readily available from health care providers throughout the country, supplementing the enzyme needed to break down hurtful milk sugars. The another option is to replace dairy for another dairy ‘equivalents’ such as soy milk or lactose-free milk, both of which are available at good retailers.


Itan Y, Jones BL, Ingram CJ (2010). “A worldwide correlation of lactase persistence phenotype and genotypes.” Evolutionary Biology 10:36.
Ingram CJ, Itan Y, Mulcare CA (January 2009). “Lactose digestion and the evolutionary genetics of lactase persistence.” Hum Genet 124 (6): 579–91.