“Sometimes I like to treat myself to a scoop of ice cream, but then I almost always end up regretting it afterwards due to the terrible upset stomach that follows,” explains Abbey.  She added, “It’s not all that bad to try and steer clear of milk and dairy products. I haven’t been able to eat them since I was in middle school…but I sure do miss ice cream.”

The amount of dairy in products can vary. Some lactose intolerant people can handle certain dairy products with low amounts of dairy. Photo: Kate Hannick.

Abbey, a lactose intolerant St. Louis high school student, has often experienced certain food related inconveniences, along with approximately 75% of the world’s population over the age of 8, according to a study from the National Dairy Council [PDF].

Abbey realized she was lactose intolerant when she was 12 years old. She had always drank milk and eaten dairy products without trouble, but when she started getting stomach aches often after breakfast, her mom took her to the doctor.  She was diagnosed with lactose intolerance and was advised to take over-the-counter lactose intolerant medication.

According to National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, lactose is a sugar found in dairy products. An enzyme is produced in the body that breaks down lactose into digestible components. People lose the ability to produce that enzyme as they mature and end up becoming lactose intolerant.

According to the Mayo Clinic, when an infant’s diet relies heavily on his or her mother’s milk, large amounts of lactase are produced. As they mature and their diet becomes less reliant on milk, lactase enzymes become less active and there is a gradual decline in lactase production. This leads to increased lactose intolerant systems. 

An July 31, 2013 article in Scientific American states that children almost universally produce lactase enzymes, but eventually the lactase gene stops producing lactase, making one’s body unable to digest milk. People who can trace their genealogy back to Europe are more likely to be able to produce lactase throughout their entire life due to a mutation that took place around 7,500 years ago that allows for continuous production of lactase.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is currently no way to boost your body's production of the lactase enzyme.

So, if roughly two out of three people are lactose intolerant, you may wonder why it is not a more prominent disorder. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, the symptoms vary greatly for lactose intolerant humans especially when it comes to severity. Most will not even notice that they are unable to fully digest lactose because diarrhea, nausea, cramps, bloating, and gas can be common complaints. Unfortunately, some digestive systems simply cannot stomach milk products at all causing symptoms to intensify to an almost unbearable level.  


The National Institutes of Health explains the three different types of tests—lactose tolerance test, hydrogen breath test, and stool acidity test—to diagnose lactose intolerance. The lactose tolerance test requires the patient to drink a liquid laced with high amounts of lactose. After two hours, a blood test is preformed to measure the amount of glucose because if the glucose level does not rise, one’s body is not properly digesting lactose. A hydrogen breath test is similar to the lactose tolerance test. A person drinks a lactose solution and then a doctor measures hydrogen levels in the patient’s breath at regular intervals because if the body cannot digest lactose it will instead ferment in the colon releasing hydrogen gases. The stool acidity test is the least common and is used mainly on infants and children who cannot handle the other types of testing. This process tests stool for lactic acid which is created by fermenting undigested lactose.

One problem that lactose intolerant people face is finding a way to include calcium in their diet. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine explains that the human body cannot produce calcium on its own so a person needs to intake enough calcium to provide for the body’s needs.  The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements says that a person above the age of eight, on average, needs from 1000–1300 milligrams of calcium per day, which is equivalent to three or four glasses of milk.  Calcium and other vitamins found in milk are good for skin, muscles, and teeth, they help with weight loss and decreasing stress, and help prevent osteoporosis by making strong bones. Items such as almond or soy milk, spinach, or calcium fortified products such as certain orange juices, oatmeal, and some cereals, are all healthy alternatives for milk.

Abbey was told to take medication in order to help her body digest the lactose but she is skeptical about the effectiveness of the medicine.

“I took medication for a while but it was really hit or miss whether it would work at preventing the different symptoms I experience,” she says. “It all really depended on how much dairy was in the product I wanted to eat. Aft er awhile, I got sick of getting sick from dairy products and having no luck with the medication.  I gave up on milk all together and cut it out of my diet.”   Kate Hannick