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Can You Stomach Milk Products?

  Drinking a glass of milk, eating an ice cream cone, or having a slice of cheesy pizza can cause stomach problems that for some people make consuming those foods not worth the discomfort.

At least 25 percent of the population has a condition known as lactose intolerance, in which their bodies don’t produce enough of the enzyme called lactase to digest the lactose in milk or milk products. Lactase, which is found in the upper small intestine, breaks down lactose, or milk sugar, so that it’s easily digested.

  "When lactase isn’t available, milk sugar stays in the gut, attracts water to it, and causes bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea,” says Kris Krueger, M.D., a gastro-enterologist at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center.

Test for intolerance

  If you think you might suffer from lactose intolerance, a good first step is to eliminate dairy products from your diet and keep a diary of your food and your symptoms for several weeks. But beware-dairy products are often hidden in foods you might not think about, such as non-dairy creamers, powdered artificial sweeteners, bread, and cake.

  A medical test, which analyzes your breath after consuming a dose of lactose, can also be done. It’s fairly inexpensive and painless, and works better than blood tests, Krueger says.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance can resemble those of other gastrointestinal problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome, so Krueger advises it’s important to see a doctor if you’re bothered by the symptoms. Some people may suffer from both irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance, she says.

  “Lactose intolerance doesn’t cause any alarming symptoms, such as weight loss or blood in the stool. It’s more of a nuisance,” she says. “But if it’s bothering you, and it’s interfering with your lifestyle, you should get it checked out.”

  Lactose intolerance affects African-Americans, Asians, and Italians more often than Caucasians. Children rarely experience it. It’s most likely to appear in young adulthood.

Over-the-counter medicine

  No prescription medications help with lactose intolerance, but many over-the-counter preparations are available to ease the discomfort. These products, available at supermarkets and drug stores, are enzymes that replace the lost lactase.

  “They do the work for you, but it’s important to take them right before you eat or with food so that the enzymes are available when the food is consumed,” she says.

  The dose needed will vary from person to person because of the varying amounts of lactase everyone has. “You may have to experiment with the number of tablets you take to find the right dose that works for you,” Krueger says.

  Many people who are lactose intolerant, however, can tolerate yogurt if it contains active bacterial cultures. Some may be able to drink whole milk but not skim milk be-cause the fats in whole milk may slow the passage of milk through the digestive tract and improve the digestion of lactose. Low-lactose milk also may relieve milk intolerance.

  “By finding a diet that works for them and using products available to ease discomfort, most people, although they won’t be cured, can ease their symptoms,” Krueger says.

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