It started around January, when my office moved to a new location and began offering fresh, raw, cold-pressed organic juices every morning. I thought it was maybe messing with my digestion, but surely the benefits of such a healthy juice would outweigh the frequent trips to the bathroom, bloating, gas and inexplicable tummy gurgles.
But then I cut out the juice and the symptoms continued. They were especially rough one morning when I desperately needed to double down on my latte dose. Then it’s struck me: As someone who adores and consumes copious amounts of dairy, could I really be lactose intolerant?
Lactose intolerance is when your body doesn’t produce the enzyme lactase, which helps digest the sugars in dairy. You can be born with it or, like me, develop it later in life when your lactase production runs down. It’s actually quite common, affecting 65% of the population.
So, how to deal with this new dietary challenge? I began eliminating dairy and found it helped reduce everything that was going on in my digestive tract. Then, before even seeing a doctor, I picked up some Lactaid – the pills that contain the enzyme that digests lactase. At first, it was hard to remember to take them before I ate dairy, like when my office had a surprise ice cream party, but when I did remember, it definitely helped with dairy digestion.
After speaking to my doctor, she confirmed that everything I had done, (eliminating one potential cause at a time then returning it to my diet) was the right way to help figure out the issue, and also sent me for a test that would measure blood sugar level changes when I eat dairy to confirm the suspected lactose intolerance.
The test wasn’t super fun, but it was necessary to see if my body was absorbing the lactose properly. I had to fast for 12 hours, then get my blood taken for a baseline, then drink some lactose and hang around for another 2 hours while they took more blood every half hour. Weirdly, I wasn’t experiencing any symptoms while I sat in the lab office, but they definitely hit me hard about a day later. Ultimately, my results showed that my blood sugars didn’t increase after I had the lactose, meaning my body does not process it properly. The case was closed.
As I adjust to this lifestyle change, I’m learning that dairy is everything, from sour cream and onion chips and salad dressings to baked goods, chocolate and even burrito dressing, which has sour cream. It takes a conscious effort to avoid it but I’m learning what I can and can’t have, like goat milk feta as opposed to cow’s milk. There are also a ton of lactose-free products like milk, yogurt, cheese and frozen desserts and as a latte fiend, I’ve been relieved to discover that cafes generally offer a lactose-free milk or dairy alternative such as soy, almond or coconut milk. And if do really want some pure dairy goodness, I can just pop a lactase enzyme pill, which will mostly prevent any symptoms.
However, this new condition has a silver lining. I’ve been eating healthier and not grabbing, say, a buttery cookie with my almond-milk lattes. Cheese no longer dresses my burgers or sneaks into late-night snacks and I feel like I’ve lost a few pounds with the lower intake of fats and calories.
My doctor says maybe my intolerance will go away once my gut has had a hiatus from dairy, but maybe it won’t. I’ve come to accept my slight lifestyle change and while I have to think a little bit before I choose my food, it’s not reducing my quality of life. There are worse issues to have, like Crohn’s disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome or other malabsorption issues, and hey, maybe I’m actually just part of the “normal” crowd now since the majority of us humans weren’t really designed to digest cow’s milk anyway.
Do you have lactose intolerance? What’s your experience been?