Does Milk Give You a Bellyache?Posted by Medicare Made Clear
Some people have a “gut reaction” after drinking milk or eating milk products. The reaction may include bloating, diarrhea and gas.
These uncomfortable gut symptoms may occur when the body doesn’t digest lactose properly. This is called lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar found in dairy foods.
The logical response is to avoid dairy foods. But that may not be necessary.
What Causes Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose is normally broken down during digestion by an enzyme called lactase. Lactose intolerance may occur when the body doesn’t make enough lactase.
Without lactase, undigested lactose passes to the colon where it is broken down by bacteria. This process is what can produce gas and other symptoms.
Not everyone experiences symptoms from undigested lactose. It’s a matter of sensitivity. Some people can tolerate more lactose than others, even if they have low levels of lactase.
How is Lactose Intolerance Diagnosed?
Lactose intolerance is diagnosed by the breath hydrogen test. Hydrogen gas is produced when bacteria break down lactose in the colon. Some gas is absorbed into the blood and exhaled in the breath.
The breath hydrogen test measures hydrogen levels after fasting overnight and again after consuming doses of milk or lactose solution. If the hydrogen level rises significantly, then lactose intolerance is diagnosed.
The test is covered by Medicare.
Some people may assume that they are lactose intolerant. It’s important not to self-diagnose based on symptoms. Symptoms may be caused by a learned dislike or some other gastrointestinal problem.
Lactose intolerance is more prevalent in African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians and Asian Americans. People in these groups may be more prone to self-diagnose. Be sure to talk to your doctor about it if you think you may be lactose intolerant.
Do You Have to Give Up Dairy?
Milk and milk products are important for meeting nutrition needs. It may be possible to manage lactose intolerance while including dairy foods. Many people can tolerate small amounts of lactose at a time. The key may be to avoid large servings in one sitting.
The National Dairy Council recommends these tips:
- Sip it. Start by drinking a small amount of milk daily. Increase the amount slowly over several days or weeks to build your tolerance.
- Try it. Choose low-lactose or lactose-free milk and milk products. They are real milk products—just with lower amounts or zero lactose. They provide the same nutrients as regular dairy foods.
- Stir it. Mix milk with other foods, such as soups and cereals. Blend milk with fruit or drink it with meals. Solid foods help slow digestion and allow the body more time to digest lactose.
- Slice it. Top sandwiches or crackers with naturally low-lactose cheeses. Choose cheddar, Colby, Monterey jack, mozzarella and Swiss.
- Spoon it. Enjoy easy-to-digest yogurt. The live and active cultures in yogurt help to digest lactose.
For more information, explore MedicareMadeClear.com or contact the Medicare helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY 1-877-486-2048.
Lactose Intolerance among Different Ethnic Groups: National Dairy Council
Choose My Plate: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Medicare.gov: Visit the official U.S. government site for Medicare.