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. But the introduction of cow’s milk throws a wrench into our internal 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 there are a few things to consider.
What is Lactase? Will it Help with Lactose Intolerance?
Lactase can be a good quick fix for people with lactose intolerance, but it won’t help with any other dairy issues. And there are several things to know if you are thinking about taking lactase enzymes.
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.). This is not a “once a day” kind of supplement.
Lactase enzymes are not super-expensive, but if you eat dairy often, you’ll need to stock up. The need to take them with great frequency, in a very timely manner, and when away from home, can be inconvenient and costly.
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. 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).
As a side note, some lactose intolerant women regain the ability to digest lactose during pregnancy, but it’s usually temporary.
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.
But Lactase Enzymes Do NOT Treat Milk Allergies or Milk Protein Intolerance
Lactase should not be taken for milk allergies or other dairy concerns outside of lactose intolerance. It has no known effect on milk proteins or other components of milk – just lactose, the milk sugar.
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. And remember to always consult your physician before making any change in your diet and before adding any supplements, like lactase, to your routine.
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.