Published June 28, 2021
In short, yes you can. It’s worth noting here that food intolerances are different to allergies. The latter involve the immune system, and usually occur immediately after eating the substance or exposure to it, and they can have serious, even life-threatening consequences.
By contrast, although they may overlap with allergic reactions, those symptoms triggered by a food intolerance usually don’t appear until an hour or more after meal – and they are caused by the digestive system, not the immune system. Typically they also come and go over time: suddenly flaring up, for example, if a person is stressed, unhappy or in a poor state of health, then ebbing away again when the person’s health improves.
What is lactose?
Lactose is a rich natural sugar produced by most mammals in their milk. It provides energy, stimulates the digestive system and aids in the absorption of minerals, encouraging healthy growth. Young children produce an enzyme called lactase in order to digest lactose. Originally, production of lactase tailed off in all human beings as they grew older and were weaned – for the simple reason that there was no further need to digest lactose. But then different populations around the world began to use the milk of cows and goats as a food source, and as a result, lactase production continued into adulthood for most people in those areas. This all means that both the ability to digest lactose and lactose intolerance are mostly genetic in nature, something we inherited from our ancestors.
However, in many individuals lactase levels start to fall again as they grow older and a gene called LCT slows down. If and when this happens – and it is quite a common development – dairy foods will slowly become a source of indigestion and general discomfort for that person. Lactose intolerance can set in at any point between the ages of around two and adulthood.
In parts of the world where milk and dairy has not historically been used as a food source, lactose intolerance – an inability to property digest lactose – remains the norm. Around 65% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant – with levels highest across Asia, African and South America. Within Europe, people with a Jewish, Italian or Greek background are statistically more likely to be afflicted.
However, lactose intolerance is not entirely a matter of genetics. Another, particularly unfortunate, trigger for the onset of lactose intolerance in later life is injury to the bowel. Infections, accidents, illness and – unfortunately – even surgery can cause such injuries, a risk recently highlighted by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in the United States.
Lactose intolerance is a spectrum: some people can consume small quantities but struggle with larger amounts, while others become ill after the smallest taste. Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
- Feeling nauseous or sick
- Bloating and gas
- Stomach cramps and pains
Without exposure to adequate levels of lactase, lactose will pass straight into the colon where digestive bacteria will then break it down, releasing the excess gas and fluid that cause most of the unpleasant symptoms associated with this condition.
If you suspect you have developed lactose intolerance, you might want to experiment with a lactose-free diet. Examine those ingredients lists carefully and avoid all dairy for a week or two to see if you feel any better. If your symptoms disappear then you most likely have your answer.
But thanks to rapid advances in technology another option is now available: a home Food Sensitivity Test. Send in a swab and you receive a full breakdown of your body’s unique reactions to different foods. Find out for sure whether your problems are caused by lactose intolerance and discover whether you would do well to cut down on any other foods too.
Written by Bev Walton
Food Writer and Nutritionist, dietician
A chef of over 35 years with experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for both magazines, websites and ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I have a degree in nutrition and dietetics and work with restaurants and organisations within the healthcare profession. I am also able to take high quality photographs of recipes created. No writing task is too great, and whilst I specialise in the above, I am able to write about any topic you throw at me. Member of the Guild of food writers.