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What happens if you ignore lactose intolerance?

By Yoo Jung, MD Jun 30, 2022 • 2 min

Are you worried about the long-term effects of consuming dairy products if you’re lactose intolerant? While lactose intolerance can cause a lot of abdominal discomfort and distress, it is not usually harmful. Lactose intolerance is caused by a deficiency in lactase, a crucial enzyme found in the digestive tract.

What are the effects of lactose intolerance?

When lactose is unable to be broken down and absorbed, it passes through the small intestine and enters the large intestine, where it's absorbed by the gut bacteria. These bacteria can then break down the lactose, but they also end up producing fatty acids and gases, such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane in the process. These bacterial byproducts lead to nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, bloating, flatulence and diarrhea.

What happens if you keep eating dairy?

If you have lactose intolerance and do not limit your consumption of foods containing lactose, you can develop chronic diarrhea. Chronic diarrhea can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and malabsorption of essential nutrients. However, most people can eat a small amount of dairy or other lactose-containing foods without experiencing symptoms. People often find that other dairy products, such as yogurt and cheeses, are easier to digest than milk. 

To confirm whether you have lactose intolerance, as opposed to another condition such as a milk allergy or other digestive condition, you should see your healthcare provider. You can ask them questions about any testing, your intake of dairy products, or possibly seeing a dietitian to ensure you're getting all the key nutrients that your body needs. If you are lactose intolerant, your provider may suggest taking lactose intolerance supplements.

Published June 2022.

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