The Deal with Dairy: Lactose Intolerance and Gut Health

lactose intolerance

Did you know: humans are the only species that continues to consume milk after infancy? It’s true. Not even baby calfs suckle their mothers for as long as we do.

The biological breakdown

A mother’s milk is a great source of fat and sugar. Consuming milk as an infant, therefore, encourages healthy development. Milk, however, contains 4-5% lactose, and lactose requires the enzyme lactase to be properly metabolized by the body.

After the first three months of life most mammals are weaned from their mothers and likely won’t consume milk ever again. Consequently, their small intestines turn off the production of lactase. The body literally stops making the enzyme required to digest milk!

Evolutionarily mammals developed to consume milk only temporarily. Well – humans are mammals, too. Just like our mammalian peers, the typical human shows a decrease in lactase expression between the ages of two to five. By ten-years-old, at the latest, most of us no longer produce the enzyme at all.

What this means for dairy drinkers

Society often paints “lactose intolerance” as a rarity when actually it’s the condition of “lactase persistence” that’s uncommon. Less than 40% of the adult world maintains their ability to digest lactose. Yep – that means that 60% of us are not biologically equipped to consume dairy. Yiiiikes. 

…but that’s not all.

Dairy causes IBS

Colitis, or inflammation of the colon, can be caused by a shift in the balance of gut bacteria. And saturated fats, especially those found in dairy, are responsible for helping to alter the microbiome.

How? Saturated fats are difficult for the body to digest so the liver excretes a sulfur-rich bile to aid in the process. This bile promotes the growth of Bilophila wadsworthia, a harmful strain of bacteria that thrives off sulfur and is linked with IBS and other forms of colitis.

When the percentage of B. wadsworthia is higher than it should be it triggers an immune response, causing the body to attack the bowels. This results in inflammation, damage, and overall discomfort. To compound the problem further, the waste created by B. wadsworthia also weakens the walls of the intestines. Leaky gut, anyone?

lactose intolerance

The takeaway on dairy

Unfortunately, odds are greater than half that you probably shouldn’t be eating dairy because your body doesn’t produce the enzymes required to digest it. Womp womp.

The good news is that, by removing dairy from your diet, you’re also eliminating the saturated fats tied to many inflammatory bowel diseases. If you’ve been eating dairy for a while and feel that your microbiome is likely out of whack, probiotic supplements can help to rebalance your gut and ameliorate your symptoms.

Something else to keep in mind: whey protein concentrate contains anywhere from 10% to 55% lactose. At Ora we believe your protein should work with your body, not against it. Don’t let your protein make you sick!

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