Oh lactose intolerance. Why must you plague so many innocent, cheese loving people? And why do you not seem to affect anyone in France, where cheese is practically an essential nutrient?
As it turns out, I seem to have an answer to both of those questions, and even a solution to offer.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is where I tell you that your lactose intolerance might be curable.
Yes, I just said that. And I meant it. (Though please do note that I’m only talking about lactose intolerance here and not milk allergy or issues with casein and the like.)
I’ve found several nice, theoretical posts on this, citing studies and resources and linking to probiotics you can spend lots of money on. These posts are certainly helpful in many ways, but in my quest to heal my many food intolerances/allergies (of which lactose intolerance is only one) I’ve found a dearth of real people who report that any available method actually works. Science is very important, but when you’re in the trenches dealing with a chronic health issue, sometimes you need a little more solidarity (and a little more direction) than is provided by a study telling you that X method worked on Y population Z percent of the time.
Here is some solidarity. And with that, a heaping dose of hope for anyone else dealing with chronic food reactions. I’m still working on my other intolerances and will report more on that when I have something to report, but as of now I can safely tell you that my lactose intolerance is largely cured. As luck would have it, lactose intolerance actually seems to be one of the easier food reactions to reverse. I’m even drinking a glass of turmeric milk as I write this. With ACTUAL MILK IN IT. It’s beautiful.
How I Did It
First, let me start by linking you to one of those scientific discussions I mentioned above. It’s quite useful in explaining the theory behind why this works, even though it doesn’t provide much in the way of how to go about it. (I’ll give you that below.)
For those of you who don’t want to slog through the whole thing, our dear Mr. Heisenbug essentially makes the distinction between technical lactose intolerance and the more severe lactose intolerance experienced by many in today’s world. The first category is simply unable to produce lactase (the enzyme which helps digest lactose and which can be bought in little pills if you’re oh-so-desperate for ice cream) but can still digest lower lactose dairy products such as yogurt, kefir, cheese, butter, etc. (without the aforementioned pills). The second type of lactose intolerance is found in those who cannot handle any dairy at all (or can’t handle it without the help of lactase supplements).
That first group probably still can’t handle a giant glass of milk (hence why they are technically lactose intolerant) but most other forms of dairy are perfectly safe as long as they aren’t consumed in ridiculous quantities. That group is unlikely to be able to get much better than they already are, though it might be possible. Post curing, this is now the category where I would fall, and I’ve had better luck than I would have thought with milk — not perfect, but I can handle it diluted, and cooked, fermented or cultured dairy gives me no problems at all. (I have yet to try uncultured raw dairy so I can’t say how that would affect me, though I’ve heard good things.)
The second, more severe lactose intolerance is the one that can be improved. Here’s why, as I understand it: Heisenbug argues that this second type of lactose intolerance is a largely modern phenomenon and has more to do with gut bacteria than enzymes. As he puts it:
“If you remember, we have a pretty simple definition of what fiber is. It’s any carbohydrate that isn’t absorbed by your small intestine, and instead passes into your large intestine to be broken down and fermented by bacteria. Gee, isn’t that exactly what lactose is in a person who doesn’t digest lactose? Why yes, yes it is! Lactose, in people who don’t produce the lactase enzyme, is treated as prebiotic, fermentable fiber. You don’t digest it, so your gut bacteria do. Simple as that. In fact, lactose is known to be the preferential fiber for a pretty important class of gut bacteria.”
Once you start to see lactose as a prebiotic, things start to make a lot more sense. Your body can only handle as much of a prebiotic as your microbiome can munch on. (om nom nom) This is why it’s generally advised for most prebiotics that you should start small and slowly up your dose. Too much too soon and those little symbiotic friends in your intestines can’t finish off the all you can eat buffet, and you’re left with some rather uncomfortable consequences. But if you feed more them little by little, they start reproducing since they no longer have to worry about how to feed their little bacterial families and can set up happy little bacteria homes in your gut. The more of those specific bacteria you have, the more they will be able to break down that prebiotic and you will be able to handle more of it without unfortunate side effects.
Based on my own experience, this most certainly seems to hold true beyond just theory. So if you want to feed your gut bacteria, here’s how.
What to do, step by step
I would like to note that some people recommend taking various probiotics for lactose intolerance. I will add my own two cents here saying that I didn’t find them necessary, and on the whole I’d rather save my money. (Especially since it’s still debated whether or not those probiotics actually survive long enough to set up camp.) If you find this method doesn’t work, however, you may find them worth a try.
- Find a source of dairy you can tolerate in small quantities. I don’t recommend milk, since that has much more lactose and can easily overload your little bacteria friends. Many recommend yogurt or kefir since those are much lower in lactose, but I found a small amount of cheese easier to tolerate. Generally anything cultured or fermented will be lower in lactose, though you may have to experiment to find what works best for you.
- Find a quantity you can consume without much discomfort. This is technically part of step 1, but finding the right quantity is just as crucial. The quantity will of course vary based on both the type of dairy product and the person. It doesn’t have to be a lot; the main goal is to find an amount where you experience no symptoms at all. Depending on how starved your little microbes are, that may mean two tablespoons of yogurt or a half a teaspoon of cheese. Maybe less than that. Do what works.
- Eat that quantity of that dairy product every day. If you miss a day it’s not the end of the world, but frequency is crucial to convince those little bacterial parents that yes, they will have a steady supply of food, and no, it’s not too risky to think about raising a family. If you experience any digestive difficulties, cut back on the dose a bit as needed. It may also help to take it right after a meal to help dilute the amount of lactose.
- As your tolerance improves, increase the dose little by little. Once you’ve reached a point where you feel you can consistently eat that small amount of dairy with no ill effects, it’s time to up the stakes. If you’re feeling really comfortable, it’s okay to push the limits a bit (sometimes it’s nice to know where your threshold is) but you don’t want any extreme discomfort. A tiny bit of gurgling is fine if you’re willing to put up with it, but you don’t want to have to run to the bathroom. Either way, know your limits, and if you feel like you’ve had enough for the day, stop.
- As an alternate means of increasing your dose, you can also take the same small amount more than once a day. Often I found that my body could handle a decent amount of lactose as long as I spread it out enough. Again, this gives those little bacteria extra time to digest — just like we generally have three smaller meals in one day, your gut bacteria don’t want to take in all their food for the day at once. Feeding them more often may also help them feel less hungry and more like making bacteria babies. As with all other steps though, if you find this is too much then cut back until it isn’t.
So now you’re probably wondering a few things. How long does it take? Will this cure things completely? Do I have to keep eating it every day forever?
The answer to all of these questions is that it will depend on you and your microbiome. But I know you want something more concrete than that, so I will tell you it took me about 1.5-2 months. (I’m afraid I don’t remember my exact start date, and something like this doesn’t exactly have a clear finish line.) It may take you more time or maybe a lot less depending on how out of whack your microbes are. Before I began I had been taking lactase supplements for years and they worked for awhile, but as time went on I found they worked less and less (presumably because my bacterial friends weren’t getting any undigested lactose to snack on since the lactase ate it all up before they got a chance).
When I first started I couldn’t even handle a small spoonful of yogurt without feeling unfortunate side effects, so I went with an even smaller amount of cheese and built it up slowly from there. The beginning was the hardest; it probably took me about two weeks on my initial dose before I could move forward too much, but after that things got easier. Sometimes if I felt no ill effects after increasing my dose, I found I could increase it again the next day with no problems. Now I happily eat cheese omelettes and cream sauces and even ice cream with no problems at all. Straight milk is still a little difficult, but far better than I expected and I can often handle it slightly diluted as long as I drink it slowly — I have to say I’m finding a sudden appreciation for milk tea. (Full fat is better for this, since it contains a lower proportion of lactose.)
And in answer to that last question, no, I no longer have to eat dairy every day in order to maintain it. I have been eating dairy happily for about six months now, and I think it’s now safe to say that those happy little gut bacteria families have set up shop and they are here to stay as long as I don’t subject them to a long-term famine. At this point I usually have something with dairy at least once a week and that seems to be enough.
The most important point with all of this is to listen to your body. It will tell you when you have had enough. But with time and listening, it seems quite likely that you too may be able to enjoy that lovely, creamy goodness again with little to no unfortunate consequences.
How about you? Have you had any experiences with healing lactose intolerance? I’d love to hear your story!
(Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nor do I claim to be any type of medical professional. As with anything regarding your health, you should use common sense and consult a doctor if needed.)