By Enyeribe Ejiogu  


The next time you see somebody drinking tea without milk, please don’t be quick to dismiss the person as another individual hit hard by the economic difficulties in the country, who cannot afford even one sachet of milk powder, not talk of the fluid type sold in tins.

Recently, a Federal Government regulatory agency lodged its officials, who were to participate in a special event, at an upscale hotel in Lagos. In the morning before the event was due to start, the officials filed into the restaurant for breakfast. One of them, Mohammed Shehu Usman (not real name), an assistant director in the regulatory agency, got a newsman who sat beside him curious, who observed that Usman had a nourishing breakfast of garnished omelette, noodles and baked beans which he ‘washed’ down with copious cups of tea without milk.

“Forgive me, I am a bit curious. I noticed that you are not taking your tea without milk. It appears there is a health benefit in taking it that way,” the reported ventured.

“Oh yeah, that is the way I prefer to take it,” he said, adding, “I am lactose intolerant. I found out some years ago that when I drink milk I will be uncomfortable because of gas. I noticed that when I don’t take milk I will be okay. Since then I have been taking tea without milk. The problem has stopped and I no longer get that bloated feeling that used to bother me.”

Lactose intolerance is a medical condition that has been found to be quite common. In fact, it’s thought to affect around 75 per cent of the world’s population, according to Lactose intolerance is a digestive disorder caused by the inability to digest lactose, which is a form of sugar that occurs in milk products.

It can cause various symptoms, including bloating, diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. The reason it happens is that because people with lactose intolerance don’t make enough of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to digest lactose. Lactose is a disaccharide, meaning that it consists of two sugars. It is made up of one molecule each of the simple sugars glucose and galactose.

The lactase enzyme is needed to break lactose down into glucose and galactose, which can then be absorbed into the bloodstream and used for energy.

Without sufficient lactase, lactose moves through the gut undigested and causes digestive symptoms.

Lactose is also found in breast milk, and almost every baby is born with the ability to digest lactose. It is very rare to find children who are five years of age exhibit lactose intolerance.

It is noteworthy that all dairy foods such as cow milk, goat milk, hard and soft cheese, ice cream, yoghurt and butter contain lactose. However, this is not say that people with lactose intolerance cannot or should not take these food items at all. Medical researchers have found that people with lactose intolerance can tolerate up to 18 grams of lactose, spread throughout the day. In fact, research has shown that many people with lactose intolerance can tolerate up to 12 grams of lactose in one sitting, which is approximately the amount in 1 cup (230 ml) of milk. Some types of dairy are also naturally low in lactose when eaten in their usual portions. Butter, for example only contains 0.1 grams of lactose per 20-gram portion.


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Types of lactose intolerance

There are two main types of lactose intolerance – primary and secondary lactose intolerance – and they have different causes. The primary type which is most common is caused by a decrease in the production of lactase as a person ages, and this leads to poor absorption of lactose. It may also be partially caused by the person’s genetic makeup as the condition occurs more commonly in some populations more than others. Studies have shown that the condition affects five to 17 per cent of Europeans, around 44 per cent of Americans and 60–80 per cent of Africans and Asians.

On the other hand, secondary lactose intolerance is rare. It is caused by illness, such as a stomach infection or a more serious issue like celiac disease. This is because inflammation in the gut wall can lead to a temporary decline in lactase production.


Symptoms to note

“Lactose intolerance is known to cause severe digestive problems if it is not properly managed,” warns Dr. Paul Akintelure, medical director of Broad Hospital, Ikotun, Lagos, adding, “the most common symptoms include bloating, abdominal cramps, gas and diarrhoea.”

Also, some people experience urgency to go to the toilet, nausea, vomiting and pain in the lower belly and occasionally constipation. Diarrhoea occurs due to undigested lactose in the small intestine, which causes water to move into your digestive tract. Once it reaches the colon, the lactose is fermented by the bacteria in the gut, forming short-chain fatty acids and gas. This causes the bloating, flatulence and pain.

The severity of symptoms can vary, depending on how much lactose you can tolerate and how much you have eaten.


Dealing with lactose intolerance

Ordinarily, milk is good for health in general terms as contains proteins, vitamins (lA, B12 and D) and minerals such as calcium, (which is very important for bone health). Regular consumption of milk products gives the bones higher mineral density and help to reduce the risk of fracture as one gets older.

However, in a case where it is established that a person is lactose intolerant, there is clear need to significantly cut down on cow milk consumption or cut it out entirely. That is the option that Usman took on the advice of his doctor and he has been happy ever since, he said with a pleasant smile.