That chronic stomach ache could mean lactose intolerance
By Lara Krupicka For The Sun September 17, 2012 2:10PM
89: Percentage of water in 1 cup of milk. | FILE PHOTO
Common symptoms of lactose intolerance:
Institutes of Health
Updated: October 20, 2012 6:08AM
Got milk? Have a stomachache? You might be lactose intolerant.
Naperville resident Gwen Stephens went to her doctor several years ago complaining of chronic stomach pain and digestive problems. Tests came back inconclusive and her doctor labeled her illness as irritable bowel syndrome. Then Stephens began noticing a pattern.
“I made the connection that when I ate dairy I felt terrible all the time,” she explains. “Avoiding dairy was the way to minimize the symptoms.”
Her case is common for people suffering from lactose intolerance. Without tests to diagnose the condition, it comes down to noticing the correlation and eliminating dairy from the diet to see if symptoms disappear.
Lactose intolerance occurs when the small intestine doesn’t produce enough lactase — an enzyme necessary for breaking down lactose sugars in dairy products. The result can be mildly to significantly painful. Symptoms range from slight stomach pain to nausea and diarrhea.
Gina Wilderspin, a clinical dietician at Provena Mercy Medical Center, suggests those experiencing symptoms of lactose intolerance keep a food diary to log what they are eating and when symptoms occur.
Getting rid of the symptoms is as simple as getting rid of dairy from the diet.
Wilderspin points out, “Relief is instant from removing dairy.”
But unlike with an allergy, it’s possible to consume some dairy. Taking a lactase supplement, such as Lactaid, before a meal can prevent or reduce problems. And it may even become possible to overcome lactose intolerance by slowly reintroducing it into the diet. The body adapts and redevelops a tolerance.
“Start by adding in small amounts with each meal,” Wilderspin suggests. “It especially helps if you consume dairy with other foods.”
For Stephens it came down to also reducing the stress in her life. As a schoolteacher, she found her symptoms were the worst during the school year. Then during breaks and over the summer, they would subside. Finally when she quit her job, they disappeared entirely.
“Stress can do amazing things to the body,” she says. “It seemed too coincidental.”
Age also plays a role in the occurrence of lactose intolerance as our bodies produce less and less lactase over time. Some studies estimate up to 75 percent of the adult population suffers from lactose intolerance to one degree or another.
While it’s mostly a benign condition, Dr. Alafia Nomani of Medical Care Associates in Yorkville says those with lactose intolerance need to watch their calcium and Vitamin D intake — the primary nutrients lost when dairy is removed from the diet. Milk substitutes such as soy, almond or rice milks can help. And Wilderspin notes that fermented dairy products contain less lactose — foods such as kefir and yogurt, Parmesan and other hard cheeses. Some people with lactose intolerance find they can consume those products without any symptoms. Anyone with lactose intolerance should consider a vitamin supplement, too.
After Stephens quit her job, she began reintroducing dairy in her diet. Today she’s back to a normal lifestyle. “I have no problems now,” she says. “I can manage it completely.”
Stephens’s journey through lactose intolerance started with recognizing the correlation between dairy and the pain.
“People often ignore the symptoms,” Wilderspin says. “You need to become aware of what you’re eating and how you feel after.”
And Dr. Nomani warns that those older than 50 should see a doctor to rule out other potential causes.
While giving up ice cream might sound like a sacrifice — anyone with lactose intolerance would rather wear a smile than a milk mustache any day.