What is Lactase? Will it Help with Lactose Intolerance?

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Most of us are familiar with lactose (milk sugar), but what is lactase? After weaning, our bodies naturally decrease the production of lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose in our intestines. In theory, after the age of two humans stop consuming their mother’s milk and therefore no longer have a need for high levels of lactase. The introduction of cow’s milk definitely threw a wrench into our operations. Lactase enzyme products such as Lactaid and Dairy-Ease “replace” the lactase in our systems temporarily, aiding in the digestion of lactose. This may sound like an easy solution, but don’t forget to look at the whole picture:

What is lactase? How much lactase do I need to take and when?

Keep a Budget for a Big Supply

Lactase products come in a pill or liquid form. The liquid is added to milk and allowed to sit for 24 hours, in essence “neutralizing” the lactose. The pills are what you take with or just before your first bite of dairy. Typically one to three pills must be taken each time you consume dairy (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, dessert, etc.). These products are not cheap, and the need to take them with great frequency, in a very timely manner, and when away from home, can make for a very inconvenient and costly method.

Dosage is Subjective

Another big question: how much lactase should you take? Most pills have an exact dosage, such as take two, twice a day. However, lactase enzymes are a system of trial and error, and error again. The two major factors that affect the dosage you need to neutralize symptoms are 1) how deficient you are in lactase enzymes (your degree of lactose intolerance at that time) and 2) how much lactose you estimate is in what you are about to consume. You’re trying to match up the amount of lactase you take with the exact amount of lactase your body needs to digest that food. There is a huge margin for error, since it is difficult to know how much lactose is in a specific food and the amount of lactase enzymes that your body produces typically increases as you age. Unfortunately, this means that your dosage may never be consistent, and you might still experience symptoms if you didn’t take the right amount at the right time.

Timing is Tricky with Lactase

If taken on an empty stomach, the high acidity level in your gut will destroy the lactase before it can work its magic. However, you need the lactase to hit your intestines before the lactose arrives. Taking it in the first five minutes of eating seems to be the most effective timing. Unfortunately, this means you must plan ahead to have the enzymes with you, but you can’t take them in advance. Plus, many people forget, or take the enzymes too late.

Lactase Won’t Solve the Problem

Unless it was brought on by an acute illness, lactose intolerance is a life-long issue that may progressively worsen over time. This means that you will need to diligently take those pills for the rest of your life, and you may even need to up the dosage from time to time (as your natural lactase production continues to deplete). Beyond the fact that this just doesn’t seem normal, what a pain!

I Hope You Don’t Mind Some Gas Anyway

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston tested the most popular lactase enzyme products (such as Lactaid, Dairy Ease and Lactrase) for effectiveness. The results showed some relief of abdominal cramping and bloating, but none of the products they tested had any effects on gas. As for the cramping and bloating, the effects on an individual level varied widely, from significant benefit to no help at all.

They Aren’t Just For Milk and Cheese

Let’s say you are diligent about taking the pills, are you just as diligent about reading the labels? Lactose intolerant individuals who do not go dairy free must read labels as frequently as their non-dairy siblings. Lactose hides in ingredients such as whey, and is found in numerous processed foods, marinades, etc. If you don’t check the labels and plan your pills accordingly, symptoms may ensue.

The Conclusion

Lactase enzymes may help you get through that once a month office pizza party, but they definitely aren’t a “go gang-busters on the dairy” free pass for lactose intolerance. If you aren’t ready to go dairy free completely, then shift your focus to lactose-free products. There are lactose-free milk brands and cheeses readily available on the market. See Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for more helpful information on low-lactose living, including the lactose levels of cheeses and different dairy foods. If you still get symptoms when consuming lactose-free foods, talk to your physician. Your problem with dairy may go beyond a simple intolerance.

About Author

Alisa is the founder of GoDairyFree.org, Senior Editor for Allergic Living magazine, and author of the best-selling dairy-free book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: 10 Facts You Didn't Know About Lactose Intolerance - The Town Dish

  2. There is lactase in the creatine I take. But I eat dairy and gluten free. Having that enzyme in my body without ingesting dairy bad?

    Thanks

  3. Pingback: food allergy blues | Let's be honest….

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