Lactase is the enzyme that helps to digest lactose, a complex sugar found in milk. Some individuals cannot make this enzyme. Here are some reasons why.
Lactase is produced by all mammals with good reason: the definition of a mammal is an animal that feeds its young milk. We need this enzyme when we are babies so our mothers can feed us.
There are various reasons why the ability to produce lactase reduces or even disappears as we get older. One is that for many, the production goes down for unknown reasons as we get older. This often means we can eat some milk products as long as we don’t eat too much; or it might mean we can eat none.
Another reason is celiac disease. Lactase is produced at the ends of the villi, tiny hair-like structures in the intestine that help absorb food nutrients. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, the gluten attacks the villi, they become flattened, and the ability to produce lactase disappears. The good news is that in this case, following a strict gluten free diet allows the gut to heal over time and eventually produce lactase again. Celiac disease symptoms are very unpleasant so there is plenty of motivation to go gluten free if you are celiac, not just so that you can drink milk.
If you have a milk intolerance due to inability to digest lactose, you can manage it in two ways:
- Buy lactase pills
- Buy milk with lactase in it
If you buy lactase pills, which are commonly available in many countries, then you can take them with any food that contains milk products including milk, cream, soft cheeses etc.
If you buy milk with lactase in it, you may find fewer symptoms if you are very sensitive vs. the pills, and it is convenient. On the other hand, this type of milk tastes a bit sweet because the lactose gets broken down into simpler sugars by the lactase, which changes the taste.
What is your experience with lactase and lactose intolerance? Please leave a comment.