Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency of the enzyme lactase, which is concerned with the digestion of lactose (the sugar found in milk). As a result, the body fails to digest lactose-containing food, such as milk and dairy products.
Lactose is a sugar found in milk and dairy products. This sugar is broken down into galactose and glucose by the enzyme lactase. This enzyme is produced by the lining of the small intestine, and is very crucial for the digestion of lactose. Lactose intolerance refers to an inability to digest the sugar lactose, due to a deficiency of the enzyme lactase. In babies, this condition is often confused with the allergy to cow’s milk or milk protein, and lactose overload.
Cow’s milk protein allergy is actually an immune reaction to one or more proteins found in milk, while lactose overload results from the ingestion of a large amount of milk. Though the enzyme lactase is produced by the body, an excessive consumption of milk causes some amounts of lactose to remain undigested, and then fermented by the intestinal bacteria, which can cause gas and bloating.
What Causes Lactose Intolerance in Infants
In babies, this condition is basically caused by a deficiency of the enzyme lactase. Lactase deficiency can be primary or secondary. Generally, the production of the enzyme lactase decreases as a child grows and starts to consume food other than milk. This is termed as primary lactase deficiency. Secondary lactase deficiency on the other hand, can result from any injury or damage to the gut or small intestine.
Secondary lactase deficiency can be caused by certain illnesses, like diarrhea, gastroenteritis, parasitic infections, celiac disease, and Crohn’s disease. Even iron deficiency can have an effect on the digestion of lactose. However, some babies can also be born with lactose intolerance, which is known as congenital lactose intolerance. It is considered as a hereditary condition that runs in families. Babies with this condition cannot digest even breast milk.
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance can appear within a few hours (usually 2 hours) from the ingestion of milk, and other dairy products containing lactose. Some of the most common signs and symptoms of this condition are:
- Pain in the abdomen
- Gas and abdominal bloating
- Crying and twitching the body after consuming milk
Diagnosis and Treatment
This condition is a bit hard to detect, as the gastrointestinal symptoms, like diarrhea, nausea, gas or bloating can also be produced by certain other health conditions. There are mainly three diagnostic tests that are employed for detecting lactose intolerance – the lactose intolerance test, hydrogen breath test, and stool acidity test.
The lactose intolerance test requires the ingestion of a lactose-loaded beverage by the baby. After two hours, a blood sample is drawn to test the level of glucose in the blood. If the intestine produces enough lactase, then this enzyme breaks down lactose into glucose, and thus raises the level of blood glucose. So, if the level of blood sugar does not increase after consuming a lactose-containing beverage, it indicates that the lactose has not been digested completely.
In the hydrogen breath test, the breath of the baby is analyzed for the amount of hydrogen after feeding a lactose-containing beverage. If lactose is not digested properly, it is fermented in the intestine, which causes the production of a large amount of hydrogen. The hydrogen produced thus is eventually exhaled.
The stool acidity test on the other hand, measures the acidity of the stool, which increases if lactose is not digested properly. The fermentation of undigested lactose produces lactic acid and other fatty acids, which increase the acidity of the stool.
The best way to manage this condition is to avoid milk and dairy or lactose-containing products. So, babies with an intolerance to lactose may require a lactose-free baby formula. As far as breast feeding is concerned, a physician will be able to provide better guidance. Some infants and adults can however, tolerate a small amount of lactose or lactose-containing food without any adverse effects. But it is better to stick to the advice of your physician instead of trying something on your own, if your baby has lactose intolerance.
An intolerance to lactose can affect the overall health and growth of your baby. However, it is not easy to diagnose this condition, as its symptoms can be confused with the symptoms of other health problems. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to remain vigilant, and consult a physician whenever your baby suffers from gastrointestinal problems.
Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be treated as a substitute for professional medical advice.