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How Race And Age Factor In Lactose Intolerance


Lactose Intolerance is a common problem - about 65 percent of the human population has it. And while it can’t be cured, it’s rarely dangerous and you can manage lactose intolerance.

Dr. Christian Mayorga, Chief of Digestive and Liver Diseases for Parkland Hospital System and Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center, talks about lactose intolerance.

Highlights from Dr. Mayorga’s interview:

What causes lactose intolerance? Lactose is a sugar commonly found in milk products. The body is unable to absorb this sugar on its own without breaking it down into two simpler sugars: glucose and galactose. And so to be able to absorb and digest those simple sugars, the cells of the intestine make an enzyme called lactase. And what lactose intolerance is is simply the symtoms that arise in patients that have a deficiency in the production of this lactase enzyme.

Who gets lactose intolerance: In general, if you live long enough, you will have symptoms of lactose intolerance. As we get older, our dependence on mother’s milk and milk products wanes because our diet now expands to non-milk based products – meats, vegetables, more well-rounded diet, And so the body ceases to produce enough of the enzyme to break down lactose because it doesn’t need it anymore. And so as we get older, the production of that enzyme wanes, and if your diet still consists of high levels of lactose, then that lactose starts making its way undigested into the colon where bacteria actually can use that undigested lactose for fuel. And the byproducts of that digestion by that bacteria is what causes the symptoms incorporated in lactose intolerance.

Genetic component: People of Caucasian descent tend not to have lactose intolerance symptoms until later in age when compared to patients of African American descent, Hispanics, Asians. The reason for this is unclear, but it probably has to do with our ancestors and our dependence on cows and milk products in the past.

Concerns about eliminating milk products from your diet to avoid lactose intolerance: A younger patient whose diet is well-balanced – fruits, vegetables, other calcium and vitamin-D containing products – absence of milk-containing products from their diet may not be detrimental. But patients who are older and more susceptible to the development of osteoporosis, or weak bones, they are very much in need of higher doses of calcium or vitamin-D, particularly post-menopausal women, and if they’re not getting that in milk products, then they should certainly take it in the form of supplementation.

For more information:

Lactose intolerance 

Causes, symptoms and treatment 

Lactose Intolerance in Infants, Children, and Adolescents 

The Healthiest Diet for Lactose Intol

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.