Intolerances versus Allergies
One of the most common problems with diagnosing lactose intolerance is that many people get confused between an allergy and intolerance.
A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system mistakes a protein (known as an allergen) in certain foods for an ‘invader’ and produce antibodies to attack it. This m ay cause two different types of reactions – either an immediate and potentially life-threatening reaction or a slower response that leads to further symptoms.
An intolerance is an inability to deal with, or digest properly, a food, which can lead to an adverse reaction, but does not involve the immune system. The symptoms of an intolerance are often unpleasant, but not life threatening.
Lactose intolerance is the intestine's inability to break down or digest the sugar found in milk, while a milk allergy is a reaction by the immune system to the protein found in milk and dairy products. Cows’ milk allergy can be very serious and, unlike lactose intolerance, can only be avoided by not consuming any dairy products.
Find out more about cows’ milk allergy.
Differentiating Between Lactose Intolerance and Cows’ Milk Allergy
The symptoms of lactose intolerance are often mistakenly believed to be due to an allergy to dairy foods, which results in dairy being unnecessarily cut out from the diet. This could lead to many people missing out on calcium, which is essential for strong teeth, bones and muscles as well as many other body functions such as helping blood coagulation and regulating the passage of nutrients in and out of cells.
Individuals with lactose intolerance can keep calcium in their diet simply by reducing the intake of lactose-containing foods and consuming calcium-rich foods such as vegetables and real dairy products that have had the lactose removed.
Lactose intolerance has similar symptoms to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), coeliac disease and mild ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
The cause of IBS is not known, but symptoms may reflect an over-activity of the muscular walls of the bowel or the nerve links between bowel and brain, or an increased sensitivity to gas in the bowel.
Coeliac disease is a common bowel condition that is caused by a reaction to the gluten protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This protein triggers the immune system to attack the lining of the small bowel, in an auto-immune reaction. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are long-term illnesses that cause inflammation in the gut, and are usually more severe.
Find out more about irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis or coeliac disease.
Galactosaemia is a rare, but dangerous condition that involves the inability to break down galactose, a sugar found in milk.
Individuals with this condition have normal lactase activity and can break lactose down into its constituent sugars, which includes galactose, but then are unable to process or metabolise the galactose. This results in the sugar accumulating in the body until it damages the liver, central nervous system, eyes, kidneys, and other body systems.
Adults and infants with galactosaemia cannot tolerate any form of milk, including human breast milk. As a result, this condition will show itself during early infancy, with the typical symptoms of jaundice, lethargy, poor feeding and weight loss.
Individual’s who display any of the symptoms attributable to the above conditions should consult a doctor.