Mary Ellen Dirlam, MD, PhD, is an internal medicine physician on staff at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. Her office can be reached at (602) 839-3927.
Question: Lately I’ve been getting stomach cramps and gassy after drinking milk or eating ice cream. I never had this problem before. Could I be developing lactose intolerance?
Answer: While I can’t say for certain whether your symptoms are in fact related to lactose intolerance without seeing you, I can tell you that it is a fairly common digestive condition that can occur at any age.
Lactose intolerance develops when the body does not produce enough of the digestive enzyme lactase to sufficiently breakdown lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. As a result, dairy consumption can lead to an array of uncomfortable and sometimes painful gastrointestinal symptoms, including bloating, gas, loose stools, abdominal pain and cramping.
The best way to avoid the symptoms of lactose intolerance is to not eat or drink foods and beverages containing lactose such as milk, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, and ice cream. However, a lack of dairy products in one’s diet can hinder the body from getting enough calcium and vitamin D, which can ultimately lead to bone thinning and osteoporosis.
Lactose-free and plant-based milk products like soy, rice and almond milks are safe alternatives to cow and goat’s milk, and they are a good source of calcium and vitamin D. In addition, lactase enzyme supplements, whether taken in liquid, tablet, capsule, chewable or drop form, can help make it possible to consume dairy products without unpleasant side effects.
Other ways to increase calcium intake include mineral supplements and calcium-rich foods such as broccoli, collard greens, potatoes, soy, turnip greens, sardines, salmon, oranges, dried figs, fortified cereals and almonds.
Current dietary guidelines suggest that healthy adults over the age of 19 consume an average of 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium daily. Adults with underlying medical conditions should consult their health care provider.
If you suspect that lactose intolerance is the source of your symptoms, try switching to lactose-free or plant-based milk products to see if you find relief. As always, you should speak with your health care provider to determine if other factors may be leading to your discomfort.