Lactose Sensitivity and Why Milk Gives You Gas
Lactose sensitivity is a very common cause of digestive problems. A person who is sensitive to the lactose in milk will often experience symptoms such as bloating, intestinal cramps and excessive gas after consuming dairy products.
Ahead is what causes lactose sensitivity and intolerance, how to know if it’s affecting you, what foods and drinks contain lactose and how to greatly reduces symptoms if you do have milk or one of the many other sources of lactose.
What Is Lactose Sensitivity?
Lactose is a type of sugar found in cow’s milk and other milk products. It is made of a glucose and a galactose molecule.
Lactose should be broken down in your upper intestine by the enzyme lactase. As infants, most of us produce a lot of lactase in our digestive systems and usually have no problems digesting milk.
As we get older though, usually around adolescence, the amount of the lactase enzyme that our bodies produce to break down lactose diminishes. This is quite normal, as milk is for infants and humans are the only animal that continues to try and drink it beyond infancy.
Just how sensitive you are to lactose depends on just how much lactase enzyme your digestive system is still producing.
As an example, some adults may be able to drink a glass of milk without any obvious side effects. Others may be able to have half a glass without discomfort, but any more than that will trigger symptoms.
For even more lactose sensitive people, even a splash of milk in their coffee can cause gastrointestinal distress. At this level, a person is considered lactose intolerant. Virtually any milk products or ingestion of lactose found in various other foods will quickly cause them problems.
Someone who is very lactose intolerant usually knows it, as they experience bloating, stomach cramps and excessive flatulence soon after having milk or most other dairy products.
More commonly, people have varying degrees of lactose sensitivity, making it more difficult to pinpoint milk, and its difficult to digest sugar, as the cause of their intestinal issues.
How Many People are Lactose Sensitive or Intolerant?
It’s estimated that around one third of Americans would be recognized as lactose intolerant. This figure can be misleading though as it depends greatly on your ethnic background.
Virtually all Native Americans and those of Asian descent have problems digesting the lactose in milk, around 75% of people of African and Caribbean descent have milk intolerance, and around half of Americans with Mediterranean heritage also show signs of lactose intolerance.
Only Americans of northern European descent have commonly developed the genetic mutation to deal with lactose and can drink milk regularly without experiencing problems like bloating, abdominal pain and gas. It’s estimated that only between 5% and 15% of these people would be considered truly lactose intolerant.
So while your background definitely plays a part in just how much dairy you can tolerate, the majority of adults do have a reduced ability to digest lactose.
Unfortunately, despite all the potential digestive problems with lactose, food manufacturers seem to find milk sugar a cheap and useful ingredient and it is added to a wide variety of processed products as we’ll see ahead. But first, why exactly does lactose cause gas?
Why Does Milk Make You Fart?
When your body isn’t producing enough of the lactase enzyme in your small intestine, lactose in the food you eat or the products you drink like milk pass through to your large intestine undigested.
Certain bacteria in your colon love milk sugar and will quickly go to work fermenting it. This process creates a lot of gas and, due to the high levels of protein in milk, it is usually much smellier flatulence than that produced by the fermentation of the raffinose in beans.
These extra gases in the gastrointestinal system can cause all sorts of problems and discomfort, from bloating and intestinal cramps and spasms, to diarrhea when pressure from flatus gas interferes with water absorption in the colon, and of course excessive flatulence.
In some respects, passing wind after drinking milk, and getting the gas out before it causes any more problems is the best thing that can happen. Not very comforting I know if it comes on during an office meeting or on a date.
This process usually happens quite quickly and some individuals can experience bloating and flatulence after drinking milk in as little as 15 to 20 minutes. If they are going to have symptoms, most people will usually experience them within an hour of having milk if they are lactose sensitive.
Which makes you wonder why, if lactose is such an obvious cause of bloating and flatulence and it happens so quickly, why are milk products and other sources of lactose still so popular? Why haven’t we worked out on a larger scale that milk makes you fart?
It’s likely many people can get away with a small amount of milk, perhaps the amount they splash on their cereal in the morning (though surely nutritious hemp milk is a much better choice here). But then, with their lactase enzyme stores depleted, any of the many other sources of lactose we’ll cover next, have the potential to cause gastrointestinal issues.
Since food containing lactose travels through the digestive tract much slower than liquid, it may be many hours before symptoms appear. Someone who can have milk in the morning without obvious problems, but then ends up gassy in the evening from the lactose rich lunch he ate, may never make the connection between the two.
What Foods and Drinks Contain Lactose?
Here’s a list of foods and drinks that contain lactose. You definitely want to avoid the products on this lactose list if you’re intolerant.
While milk is the most obvious source of lactose, there are many other potential culprits of flatulence and other intestinal problems caused by undigested milk sugar.
The majority of us though, with varying levels of lactose and milk sensitivity, would also do well to reduce our consumption of the following where possible to prevent bloating, abdominal cramps, flatulence and other symptoms caused by not breaking down the lactose sugar in milk.
- All dairy milk, especially skim milk which has even higher levels of milk sugar, but all milk derived from cows or goats will contain lactose in some of the highest levels.
- Protein powders made with whey can be a concentrated source of lactose and cause flatulence problems for many people.
- Butter and all forms of cream contain less lactose than milk, but still enough to cause problems for the lactose intolerant or highly sensitive.
- Cheese will generally contain less lactose the harder it is. So hard aged cheeses like Romano, parmesan or cheddar will have less milk sugar than softer cheeses like Camembert or mozzarella, which are generally higher in lactose.
- Ice cream can unfortunately be particularly bad. Not only is it made from milk, but manufacturers have incentive to sweeten it even further with added milk sugar.
- Yogurt, in theory should be lower in lactose as the beneficial bacteria predigests the milk sugar. Unfortunately, what passes for yogurt in the supermarket fridges these days is usually nothing more than sweetened, thickened milk with very little probiotic content. A good quality and unflavored traditional Greek or cultured yogurt will likely be much lower in lactose, but these can be difficult to find.
- Canned soup is a less obvious source of lactose, but often quite a high one. Check the labels for any milk-based ingredients, but generally any cream-based soup will be full of lactose.
- Savory snacks often contain milk powder which again contains lactose and anything cheese flavored will usually be especially high in flatulence causing milk sugar.
- Sweets like milk chocolate (dark chocolate is much lower and healthier), cakes, puddings, cookies and particularly doughnuts are all potentially significant sources of lactose.
- Sauces, gravies and salad dressings like mayonnaise can all contain lactose. You can check the labels for milk solids, milk powder, anything starting with whey and of course lactose itself.
- Breakfast cereals are also sometimes made with milk powder or milk solids, though of course this pales into insignificance if you’re already eating them with a big bowl of cow’s milk.
- Bread is another commonly eaten food that can contain lactose. The amount on its own may not cause problems, but as you can see with all the different products containing milk sugar, it’s all the more to ferment in the lower intestine.
- Even processed meats like sausages and luncheon meat can have lactose in them, as can breaded or battered meats, and are worth avoiding for the lactose intolerant. Of course pizza with its combination of soft cheese, bread and often processed meats will be a triple whammy and usually high on the lactose scale.
- Even birth control pills, headache tablets and some drugs and supplements contain lactose as an ingredient for some strange reason. Alone they are unlikely to have an effect, but if your body cannot produce any more lactase enzyme then it all adds up.
As you can see it’s a fairly extensive list of products with lactose in them. If you’re looking on food labels trying to avoid milk sugar you want to watch out for anything that says: milk powder, milk solids, milk protein, whey solids or protein, nonfat dried milk, casein, sodium caseinate and obviously lactose itself.
If there’s foods on there that you simply can’t see yourself living without then this may be a simple solution.
Lactose Intolerant Versus Lactose Sensitive
For someone who is truly lactose intolerant it’s important to avoid as many foods as possible on the above list to prevent gastrointestinal problems.
It’s much more serious than just cramps, bloating and flatulence. Constantly dealing with the fermentation of lactose can leave your digestive system in a weakened state and lead to harmful bacterial overgrowth and lowered immunity.
For a person who is only slightly lactose sensitive, just avoiding milk itself may be enough to prevent all but occasional problems. This hemp milk is a great alternative, high in important omega-3 fats and completely lactose-free.
Those with moderate lactose and milk sensitivity (and I’d include myself in this group) would want to avoid milk and generally some of the higher lactose containing foods like soft cheese, ice cream, supermarket yogurt, snacks with milk solids, creamy soups, pizza, doughnuts and milk-based sauces and gravies.
If you’d like to check for sure if you are lactose intolerant or on the higher scale of lactose sensitive then there is a simple test available from your GP called the ‘Lactose Intolerance Breath Test’.
How to Drink Milk without Farting
If you really can’t bear the thought of a life without flavored milk, ice cream and Camembert on crackers, there are lactase supplements that you can take to replace the milk sugar digestive enzymes your body is no longer making in large enough quantities.
Lactaid is the most well known of these, but these ones contain the same 9000 FCC (Food Chemical Codex) units of lactase per capsule as the highest strength Lactaid. At 180 capsules versus the usual 60 in Lactaid they are also about half the price and work just as well for me. Many in the reviews seem to agree.
I take them at the same time as an occasional ice cream or pizza and there’s none of the usual bloating, tummy rumbling or gas. It’s a good idea to take one of the silver blister packs with you if you think you could be having foods or drinks containing a lot of lactose and have them either just before or with your meal or milk based drink.
Beware of other cheaper brands of lactase enzyme caplets or chewables that only contain 1000 or 2000 FCC units. This won’t be enough for all but the lowest of lactose sensitivity and definitely not enough if you are lactose intolerant.
Millions of people in America have problems with the lactose in milk but don’t know it and experience abdominal bloating and cramps, excessive flatulence and other gastrointestinal problems regularly. Please share this page with your friends and let people know there is a solution.
Photo 1: Scott Robinson / Photo 2: Kent and Denise / Photo 3: David Joyce