NUTRITION
March 27, 2000

Lactose Intolerant?

What should you do about lactose intolerance? New findings suggest a surprising answer — drink milk.

According to a series of studies done by Dennis A. Savaiano, dean of Purdue University's School of Consumer and Family Sciences, drinking milk in the right amounts and at the right times can actually increase the ability of lactose intolerance sufferers to digest dairy products.

If the body does not have enough lactase, undigested lactose sits in the intestines, where it ferments, causing unpleasant bloating, gas and diarrhea.

Savaiano recommends drinking a half-glass of milk after meals several times a day for three or four weeks. Based on 16 years of study, his research shows that by consuming milk in this way, lactose-intolerant people can actually train their digestive systems to break down lactose. "If you only consume dairy products once in a while, you are more likely to have symptoms from them," he says. "Also, if you consume them by themselves, as opposed to as part of a meal, they tend to be transported throughout the intestine more rapidly and are more likely to cause symptoms."

Lactose intolerance is a common condition, especially among adults, that results from low levels of the enzyme lactase in the digestive tract. Lactase breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products, and converts it into simple sugars that the body can metabolize and turn into energy. If the body does not have enough lactase, undigested lactose sits in the intestines, where it ferments, causing unpleasant bloating, gas and diarrhea.

Many American adults do not produce enough lactase to completely break down the lactose contained in a large dairy meal. In fact, up to three-fourths of the world's population suffers from this problem in some form. For this reason the cuisine of many cultures, such as those of eastern China and southeastern Asia, contains virtually no dairy products, whether it be butter, milk, cheese, or yogurt.

TheDoctor's nutrition expert, Robert M. Russell, M.D., comments, "This is especially important information, because most adults do not get enough calcium and vitamin D, (both of which are found in dairy products), in their diet as it is. The situation is even worse for people with lactose intolerance, many of whom have been avoiding milk altogether; these findings suggest that this may no longer be necessary." Russell is Professor of Medicine and Nutrition at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Savaiano adds that "our studies have shown a really amazing adaptation of the large intestine of humans," he says. "The large intestines contain bacteria that help digest lactose. By altering the diet over time, bacteria more effectively digest lactose, making milk very well tolerated." He recommends that people with lactose intolerance start with one-quarter to one-half cup of milk with meals two to three times a day, and slowly increase milk consumption. After that, they should eat dairy foods in moderation, avoid eating large amounts at one sitting, and eat yogurts, which are easier to digest because they contain lactase. Finally, if symptoms flare up, they should use over-the-counter digestive aids.

Reviewed by: Robert M. Russell, M.D.
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