Sugar comes in many forms. One type of sugar, lactose, occurs primarily in milk. Nature gives young children the ability to digest lactose, because they need to do so when they nurse. However, as people grow up, they often lose the lactose-digesting enzyme, known as lactase. The result is a condition called lactose intolerance. Symptoms include intestinal cramps, gas, and diarrhea following consumption of lactose-containing foods.
Lactose intolerance is most prevalent in people of Hispanic, African, Asian, Middle Eastern, or Native American descent, although Caucasians can develop it as well. Treatment consists primarily of avoiding foods containing lactose, such as milk and ice cream. Use of lactase supplements may help people who are lactose intolerant handle more lactose than otherwise. Also, special milk products are available from which the lactose has been removed (often through the use of lactase).
Aside from lactase, there are no effective natural treatments for lactose intolerance. Despite some positive anecdotes, scientific evidence suggests that use of probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus will not improve symptoms.1 However, natural medicine does have one contribution to make to people who are lactose intolerance: reminding them to take calcium supplements. People who avoid lactose-containing foods often do not get enough calcium in their diets, and may therefore be at increased risk of osteoporosis and other health problems. Calcium supplements should correct this problem. For detailed information on the proper dosages and types of calcium to use, see the full calcium article.
Many people confuse milk allergy with lactose intolerance. The two conditions are not related. Milk allergy involves an allergic reaction to the protein component of milk, and lactase supplements will not help. For more information on natural approaches to food allergies, see the food allergy article.