8 Signs You Might be Lactose Intolerant

Lactose intolerance affects approximately 7 million Canadians. Find out if you’re one of them.

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Lactose intolerant woman pours herself a glass of milk

Are you lactose intolerant?

Do you feel unwell after drinking milk, or eating ice cream? If your body reacts negatively after you consume dairy products, you might be lactose intolerant.

According to Dr. Desmond Leddin, a board member of the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF), individuals with this condition lack the enzyme lactase, which breaks down and helps absorb lactose, the sugar found in milk products.

If lactose isn’t digested properly, it can cause a variety of uncomfortable symptoms in the colon, and throughout your body. It’s been estimated that more than 7 million Canadians are affected by lactose intolerance. Could you be one of them? Here are eight signs that you might have lactose intolerance.

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1. You exhibit classic symptoms

The CDHF lists the following symptoms as possible warning signs of lactose intolerance:

• Diarrhea lasting more than five days
• Unintended weight loss
• Persistent vomiting
• Black tarry stools
• Bloody diarrhea, or bright red blood in your stool
• Unexplained fatigue
• Pain in the stomach area that improves or worsens when you eat
• Persistent fever
• Pain when having a bowel movement

Leddin says that if you have several of these symptoms, your physician may refer you to a gastroenterologist, a specialist who deals in the diagnosis and treatment of disease affecting the digestive system.

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2. Other digestive ailments have been ruled out

“Sometimes digestive symptoms stem from a temporary illness such as a flu, a reaction to certain medications, or a more chronic underlying condition,” says Leddin. Your doctor will conduct a process of elimination before diagnosing lactose intolerance.

Once influenza, stomach viruses and other factors have been excluded, lactose intolerance will be considered a possible cause of your health woes.

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3. Symptoms appear quickly after consuming lactose

Symptoms such as stomach upset, gas, bloating and diarrhea can occur generally within one to three hours after eating something containing lactose, but this time frame can vary depending upon what, and how much you ate. “Sometimes [symptoms appear] the following morning if people have eaten foods containing lactose before going to bed,” says Leddin.

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4. Symptoms vanish when you stop eating lactose

If you experience any of the classic symptoms after eating dairy items, Leddin says that the best treatment is to avoid milk products completely. The CDHF recommends removing all products that contain lactose from your diet for one to two weeks to see if your symptoms vanish. If they do, there’s a high possibility that you are lactose intolerant.

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5. You’re a member of a specific ethnic group

Leddin says that one form of lactose intolerance is “determined by genetic makeup and is very common in certain ethnic groups such as indigenous peoples and those of Asian decent.”

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6. You’ve recently had stomach complaints

The lining of your intestine can end up sore and damaged after a spell of stomach flu, or if you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease.

An individual experiencing the common warning signs of lactose intolerance in such situations may have become afflicted with a temporary sensitivity to lactose.

Thankfully, this type of intolerance can be short-lived. “When the damage to the intestine heals after [the illness], the ability to digest lactose can come back,” says Leddin. Some — but not all — celiac disease sufferers can also regain normal digestion of lactose after time spent on a special diet created for celiac patients.

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7. Dairy products occasionally make you sick

There are varying degrees of lactose intolerance. Some people can tolerate a little lactose without becoming ill, while others cannot consume even a small amount without falling sick. “Lactose intolerance isn’t an all or nothing situation,” explains Leddin.

It’s not uncommon for some lactose intolerant individuals to be able to stomach hard cheeses and yogurt more easily than other dairy products.

According to the Mayo Clinic, hard cheeses such as Swiss and cheddar are less painful to digest because they contain smaller amounts of lactose.

Yogurt is easier on the digestive system as well due to how it’s made. The culturing process of yogurt naturally creates the enzyme that breaks down lactose.

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8. Taking lactase enzymes makes you feel better

Individuals with lactose intolerance often feel better when they add lactase enzymes to their diet. “These enzymes available in pharmacies and health food stores help minimize the effects of lactose intolerance,” says Leddin.

Non-prescription drops or tablets taken before a meal or snack that features dairy products are a simple way to bring relief for lactose-related discomfort.

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