Natural Remedies for Lactose Intolerance

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What is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest significant amounts of lactose, the major sugar found in milk and milk products. 

Lactose intolerance is caused in part by a shortage of lactase, an enzyme produced by the cells that line the small intestine. Lactase breaks lactose down into the simple forms of sugar, glucose and galactose, so they can be absorbed and used by the body.

Infants have the highest levels of lactase, which helps them digest their mother's milk. In about 75% of the world's population, a genetic trait causes lactase levels to start irreversibly decreasing after weaning. By adulthood, most lactase activity is lost. Although the decline in lactase activity affects the majority of the population, not everyone has symptoms of lactose intolerance after consuming normal amounts of lactose.

Whether or not people develop symptoms appears to be linked to the ability of a certain type of beneficial bacteria, called lactic acid bacteria, to break down lactose. 

Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include:
  • Gas
  • Cramping
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
Lactose left undigested in the intestines can result in diarrhea, because of the excessive amounts of water that are drawn into the intestines by lactose. Hydrogen is produced, causing gas and bloating.


Natural Remedies for Lactose Intolerance

So far, scientific support for the claim that supplements can treat lactose intolerance is lacking.

1) Acidophilus and Probiotics

Lactic acid bacteria in the intestines breaks lactose down into short-chain fatty acids and other substances that can be absorbed by the colon.

They are available in supplement form as capsules, tablets, or powders in the refrigerated section of health food stores, grocery stores, drug stores and online. 

There are many different types of lactic acid bacteria. The types used most often for lactose intolerance include:

  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus bulgaricus
  • Streptococcus salivarius
  • Lactobacillus reuteri
  • Lactobacillus plantarum
  • Streptococcus thermophilus

In a 2000-2002 survey of 61,587 people aged 50 to 76 years that was published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, acidophilus for lactose intolerance was found to be one of the top reasons people used a specific supplement for a health condition.

In a systematic review published in 2005 in the Journal of Family Practice, however, researchers searched randomized controlled trials published between 1966 and 2002. Out of the 90 studies that were found, only 10 articles met their inclusion criteria. Three out of nine studies found that probiotics reduced breath hydrogen levels and three had both positive and negative results.

The breath hydrogen test is a non-invasive test that may be used to help assess lactose intolerance, based on the finding that people with lactose intolerance exhale increased levels of hydrogen gas. 

When the researchers looked at symptoms, one out of seven studies showed a significant reduction in symptoms, another had both positive and negative results, and five studies showed no benefit. Although the results of the review appear to indicate mixed results for reducing breath hydrogen and poor results at reducing symptoms, it's important to know that each study used a different type of lactic acid bacteria, a different concentration, and a different product. 

More: Acidophilus and Probiotics

2) Yogurt

In alternative medicine, yogurt containing live active bacteria is believed to help lactose digestion. When yogurt is consumed, bile acids disrupt the cell wall of the bacteria in yogurt. This releases the enzyme beta-galactosidase (related to lactase) into the intestines, where it can enhance lactose digestion.

3) Acidophilus Milk

Acidophilus milks are made by adding Lactobacillus acidophilus to cold milk. Many of the studies that have looked at acidophilus milks for lactose digestion have found no improvement. Researchers have speculated that it may be because the acidophilus products used in the studies did not contain enough live acidophilus.

4) Lactase Supplements
Tablets containing lactase can be taken with lactose-containing foods. For many people, lactase supplements are only needed for larger quantities of lactose. If a certain type of lactase supplement doesn't work, it may be worthwhile to try other brands. Some people find the tablet form works better than the chewable form.

5) Diet
It's quite common for people to avoid lactose-containing foods completely, but that usually isn't unnecessary and may contribute to calcium deficiency.

Some dietary strategies for people with lactose intolerance include:

  • Drink less than one cup of milk at a time
  • Eat milk and milk products with meals rather than alone
  • Try reduced-lactose milk
  • Try yogurt instead of milk


Supplements haven't been tested for safety and due to the fact that dietary supplements are largely unregulated, the content of some products may differ from what is specified on the product label. Also keep in mind that the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. You can get additional tips on using supplements here.

Using Natural Remedies for Lactose Intolerance

If you have just developed lactose intolerance, it's important to consult with your doctor. Lactose intolerance can also be caused by medications or by an underlying condition that damages cells lining the intestines, such as:
  • Crohn's disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Giardiasis
  • HIV enteropathy
  • Carcinoid Syndrome
  • Diabetic gastropathy
  • Zollinger-Ellison syndrome
  • Alcoholism
  • Iron Deficiency

Although it's too soon to recommend supplements in the treatment of lactose intolerance, increasing your intake of probiotic-rich foods may help enhance your overall health. If you're considering the use of supplements or any other form of alternative medicine, talk with your doctor first. Keep in mind that alternative medicine should not be used as a substitute for standard care.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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