The sugar found in milk and other dairy products such as yoghurt and cheese is called lactose. An enzyme in the small intestine called “lactase” breaks lactose into galactose and glucose. When the lactose is not digested properly by the small intestine, it passes unbroken into the colon. The bacteria in the colon break the lactose down into hydrogen and carbon dioxide. People who fail to digest lactose in their small intestines are diagnosed with lactose intolerance.
Usually lactose intolerance only affects adults, but sometimes children do suffer from it. For children, their symptoms can be mild or very severe (for example, cramps, diarrhoea in children, etc.)
Normally, parents can confuse milk allergy with lactose intolerance. They do share the same symptoms, but they are completely different medical conditions. Milk allergy is caused by the immune system while lactose intolerance is a problem with the digestive system.
The causes of lactose intolerance include:
1. Absence or deficiency of the lactase enzyme
2. Infections in the gastrointestinal tract that damage the lining inside the small intestine
3. Gluten intolerance (It affects lactase production)
4. Genetics (Lactose intolerance can run in the family)
When the lactose is broken down in the colon, certain gases are produced. These gases can cause symptoms such as:
1. Abdominal inflammation and pain
2. Excessive burping
3. Loud sounds in the bowel
4. Excessive diarrhoea and gas
5. Explosive and watery bowel movements
6. A feeling of urgency when it comes to bowel movements (In children, they might feel like they need to get to the bathroom as soon as possible or they might embarrass themselves)
How best to treat it?
Living with lactose intolerance usually involves dietary modifications and taking supplements such as over-the-counter lactase to aid in digestion. For instance, you can replace milk with soy milk, or take lactase before ingesting any dairy product. Or alternatively, you can consume lactose-reduced or lactose-free milk and dairy products.
Calcium deficiency is a serious side effect of lactose intolerance. So incorporate calcium-rich foods such as broccoli, kale, tofu, almond, dried fruits, soybeans, turnip greens, collard greens and fortified orange juice in your diet. If you wish to discuss about any specific problem, you can consult a pediatrician.