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Lactose intolerance and bloating

Posted 7 years ago by Brendan

Lactose is the major sugar found naturally in milk and milk products – butter, cheese, cream, yoghurt, etc. To digest it we require the intestinal enzyme lactase to hydrolyse (split apart) lactose into glucose and galactose so these simple forms of sugar can be absorbed and utilised. For more on digestive enzymes and bloating click here. A form of carbohydrate malabsorption, those who produce no or too little lactase are unable to digest lactose properly. Just as foods high in dietary fibre (indigestible carbohydrates) can promote bloating or flatulence when consumed in excess (to read more about dietary fibre and bloating click here), the presence of poorly digested lactose in the intestines generally creates varying degrees of abdominal distress. By attracting excessive amounts of fluid into the bowel many experience diarrhoea soon after eating lactose, while bacterial fermentation of unabsorbed lactose (an all you can eat buffet for intestinal bacteria) produces copious amounts of hydrogen gas and organic acids within the intestines which leads to abdominal bloating, cramps, flatulence, nausea, even vomiting. The severity of symptoms usually corresponds with the amount of lactose consumed. For more on what causes bloating click here.

Lactose, found in every day food such as cheese, could cause bloating in those who are lactose intolerant. 

Who is most affected?

Infants have the highest levels of lactase which allows them to digest their mother’s milk. As in mammals however, after weaning a genetic trait causes lactase activity to diminish. While some populations heavily reliant on dairy products report lactase persistence and effective lactose digestion well into adulthood, 75% of the world’s adult population have reduced lactase activity. Statistics indicate adults with Asian, African, Native American or Mediterranean backgrounds are particularly lactose deficient. Congenital lactase deficiency or an inability to digest lactose from birth is less common while an acquired lactase deficiency can result following small intestine damage due to injury, gastroenteritis, illness or environmental causes.

Why do some people suffer more than others?

The presence of lactic acid bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus is thought to account for those with reduced lactase activity not exhibiting symptoms after consuming lactose. These beneficial bacteria are able to digest otherwise indigestible lactose into short chain fatty acids and other beneficial substances. Dysbiosis and the presence of detrimental bacteria on the other hand is more often associated with an exacerbation of symptoms such as bloating following lactose consumption. To read more about the balance of good and bad bacteria click here

Is lactose intolerance a food allergy?

Lactose intolerance is the most common carbohydrate induced food intolerance. Unlike a milk allergy where an abnormal immune response to milk protein is responsible for producing symptoms which can affect the whole body and even become life threatening (anaphylaxis), with simple lactose intolerance there is no immune involvement; just an inability to digest lactose properly. Lactase deficiency and continued exposure to lactose can however contribute to dysbiosis, leaky gut syndrome and an imbalance in the digestive system which affects the homeostasis of the entire body – the immune and endocrine systems particularly. Both Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) are closely related to lactose intolerance. For more on IBS click here


The best way to avoid the symptoms of lactose intolerance is to avoid lactose containing foods. These days consumers are spoilt for choice when it comes to lactose and dairy free options. Most lactose intolerant individuals are able to consume a certain amount of lactose before experiencing symptoms so many simply reduce their consumption to a level they can handle rather than avoiding dairy all together. Those especially fond of dairy products may find supplementing their intake with lactase enzymes available from health food stores a more enjoyable option. Supplementing with probiotics may also help to establish a dominance of beneficial bacteria in the gut flora that can help digest lactose for you. For more on how probiotics work click here

Do something about it

Bloating that occurs soon after eating milk or dairy may suggest a lactose intolerance. Try avoiding milk products for a few days to see if there is any change in your symptoms. If you notice any bloating, cramps or diarrhoea ease only to reoccur upon reintroducing lactose, this is a pretty good indication you are lactose deficient. Talk to your doctor or health professional about it or click here to read more about natural remedies for bloating.

If you are lactose intolerant tell us how it affects you here.  

About Brendan O'Loughlin

Brendan is a integrative naturopath, nutritionist and yoga teacher. He has completed training in Naturopathy, Nutrition, Herbal Medicine, Yoga, Iridology and Live Blood Analysis.

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