As newborn babies, we are almost totally dependent on milk for sustenance and our bodies produce plenty of the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for digestion of lactose - a type of sugar present in milk. Lactase production decreases as we get older, but usually remains high enough to digest dairy foods an adult would normally consume.
If there is a significant decrease in the production of lactase, you may become lactose intolerant with symptoms such as bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting any time you consume milk or milk products.
Lactose intolerance is primarily caused by faulty genes and may begin as early as 2 years of age with its full effects manifesting only by adulthood. However, it can occur at ANY AGE following infection, injury, illness, or surgery that involves the small intestines where lactase-producing cells are located.
Factors that increase your risk of developing lactose intolerance include:
- Advancing age: The older you are, the higher your risk.
- Ethnicity: People of African, Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian descent are in the high-risk category.
- Premature infants: Lactase-producing cells are formed late in the third trimester.
- Certain forms of cancer treatment: Radiation therapy for stomach cancer or chemotherapy that damages the lining of the small intestine may increase your risk for developing lactose intolerance.
- Diseases of the small intestine: Digestive diseases that can cause lactose intolerance include Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and bacterial overgrowth. In many cases, treating the underlying digestive disorder may improve lactase production and resolve your symptoms.
The normal aging process may make you more sensitive to digestive problems such as bloating after a meal and some foods may move quickly through your intestines mimicking symptoms of lactose intolerance. If you frequently have an upset stomach after consuming dairy foods, a visit to a gastroenterologist will help you identify the cause of your condition as well as the best way to treat it.