Can lactose intolerance be reversed?

Lactose is a sugar found in the milk of animals, including breast milk. When we are babies and drink a lot of milk, an enzyme known as lactase breaks down the lactose into smaller sugars that the body is able to absorb. As we grow, some people’s bodies stop producing the lactase enzyme. This means that rather than being broken-down and absorbed, the lactose sits in the gut. Here, it is consumed by gut bacteria, which rapidly reproduce and produce large amounts of gas. This causes painful bloating. The increased levels of lactose in the gut also prevent water from being properly absorbed by the large intestine, which causes diarrhoea.

Obviously, these symptoms are very unpleasant and make life difficult for those who are lactose intolerant. Some individuals only need to consume a tiny amount of lactose to experience these symptoms and therefore need to be vigilant at all times. Therefore, people have long been on the lookout for ways to become lactose tolerant.

The idea of becoming lactose tolerant is is actually quite an unnatural one. Believe it or not, but the default for adult humans is to be lactose intolerant. This is because during our evolution, we normally only consumed milk as babies, in the form of breast milk. We didn’t consume milk as adults and therefore had no need to continue producing the lactase enzyme as an adult. However, as we started consuming milk from animals such as cows and goats, it suddenly became very beneficial to be able to produce lactase as an adult. Therefore, natural selection favoured those individuals who had a mutation that allowed them to continue producing lactase as adults. This mutation spread and nowadays most people in Western Europe are lactose tolerant as adults.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though, for those of you who are lactose intolerant. There are several options available to make life a little easier:

  • You can buy lactose-free dairy products from brands such as Arla Lactofree. These dairy products have had the lactose removed in a way that doesn’t substantially alter the product’s flavour or nutritional value.
  • You can switch over to non-animal derived milks, such as soya, almond, coconut or oat milk. These milks do not contain any lactose and therefore are safe for those who are lactose intolerant.
  • Another option is to take a lactase supplement. These revolutionary supplements contain purified lactase enzyme that you can take before consuming a product that contains lactose. The lactase will remain in your gut just long enough to break-down the lactose from that snack or meal. (Unfortunately, the lactose doesn’t remain in the gut forever, as it is quickly metabolised itself by your other digestive enzymes.)

However, what about a more permanent solution? A new piece of research aims to take this one step further by trying to increase people’s lactose tolerance over a longer period by giving them probiotics containing strains of good bacteria that can consume lactose. Your gut is home to countless strains of microbes, collectively known as your gut microbiome. A growing body of research is showing how altering your gut microbiome can lead to wide-ranging changes from your mood, to food cravings, to digestive health.

The study showed that giving lactose intolerant individuals a particular probiotic was able to reduce the frequency of symptoms of lactose intolerance, such as bloating and diarrhoea, by around 50%. The term probiotic refers to supplements contain one or more strains of good gut bacteria and the probiotic in question contained a bacteria that was able to consume lactose and turn it into lactic acid without producing large amounts of gas that would otherwise lead to painful bloating.

Another study showed that the prebiotic RP-G28 was able to improve lactose digestion and reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance. Prebiotics are nutrients that selectively feed and nurture good gut bacteria, rather than bad gut bacteria. The prebiotic RP-G28 was able to improve lactose digestion by selectively supporting the growth of lactose-consuming strains bacteria that are able to metabolise the lactose without producing by-products that lead to symptoms such as bloating and diarrhoea.

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