Everything You Need To Know About Becoming Lactose Intolerant As An Adult

by Julia Guerra

If dipping Oreos in a tall, ice-cold glass of milk is one of your fondest childhood memories, I’m right there with you. And if, besides the cream filling, the best part of the entire experience was letting each chocolate disk soak in the pool of white to enhance the subtle cocoa flavor you’d drink down after savoring the last crumb, same. But maybe indulging in a glass of milk with dessert is more problematic for you now than it is pleasurable, and if that’s the case, you should know you can become lactose intolerant later in life. So if drinking milk, or eating a few slices of extra cheese pizza causes a ruckus in your stomach, it’s possible you could have developed a sensitivity over the years.

Notice how, above, I described lactose intolerance as a sensitivity, not an allergy. That’s because, according to Mayo Clinic, lactose intolerance "isn’t a true allergy;" it’s a direct result of your body lacking or completely missing an enzyme called lactase, whose function is to break down the lactose, aka a type of sugar, found in dairy products.

What’s really fascinating, though, is that, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, humans are born with this enzyme in order to drink the milk from their mothers, but after weaning, “75 percent of the world’s population” lose their lactase enzymes. Which, the organization adds, isn't a huge loss (except, of course, if you love the taste of dairy), because milk products don't actually offer any exclusive nutrients you can't get from other foods.

Being born with a lactose intolerance is rare, but it's actually common to develop a lactose intolerance as you get older.

Trust me, friends, I sympathize with just how hard it is to internalize this information, especially when, like me, you just cannot imagine a life without cheese or scoops of ice cream piled high on a waffle cone on summer nights. If nothing else, we can at least take comfort in the fact that the majority of us share the same intolerance, right? As for those of you eating spoonful after spoonful of yogurt reading this, we’re not friends. Just kidding! Kind of.

In terms of how the human body can just sort of lose its ability to break down lactose, nothing freaky has to happen to the body, your insides won’t go through anything traumatic. According to Grace Derocha, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and certified health coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, lactose intolerance can occur if your small intestine stops producing enough lactase enzymes over time, or your LCT gene, which gives your body the go-ahead to produce lactase slows down. It’s really just as simple as that. Plus, Derocha tells Elite Daily, "poor gut health and diet can also impact the body’s efficiency of producing lactase,” so you might want to take care of that if there’s any shred of hope that dairy can still do it for you.

So there's a good chance you'll become lactose intolerant later in life, but now the question is, how can you tell?

You might not even realize you have a dairy intolerance, but you’re definitely going to be feeling the effects of dairy regardless if you can identify the issue yourself or need a doctor to do the honors. For me, anytime I overload on cheese (sometimes you eat pizza for dinner three days in a row, OK?), I know for a fact the food baby expanding my abdomen is all thanks to lactose (and, sure, my lack of self control, whatever). This, Derocha says, is one of many signs of a lactose intolerance, while other symptoms like gassiness, stomach pain, diarrhea or constipation, and cramping are also common. Worst case scenario, she tells Elite Daily, you might experience nausea or vomiting. Which, in that case, put the pint of Ben & Jerry's down; not even Cherry Garcia is worth that mess.

Even though it’s not considered a true allergy, your doctor can still diagnose your lactose intolerance. The first step is going to be to make an appointment as soon as you start noticing any of these symptoms after consuming dairy. I cannot stress enough how important it is to consult your doctor ASAP, because even though lactose intolerance can't be cured it can be treated.

Once your appointment's in the books, and you make your way to the office, Mayo Clinic reports your doctor will either perform one or more of three tests to diagnose you with lactose intolerance. For example, a lactose intolerance test might be issued in which you’ll have to drink liquid high in lactose to see whether or not you glucose levels rise and if your body is breaking down the sugars in dairy. A hydrogen breath test is also possible, and will require you to drink a similar liquid high in lactose so your doctor can measure the amount of hydrogen in your breath. If hydrogen levels are high, that means your body is unable to breakdown lactose properly. Stool tests are generally more for children and infants who can't undergo any of the aforementioned tests, but your doctor could require you to submit a sample of your business to check its acidity.

Right now, dairy might not be an issue for you, but if you do develop a lactose intolerance later in life, it's not the end of the world.

OK, so you have to lighten up on the dairy products, or, if worse comes to worst, eliminate lactose from your diet altogether. At first, it's going to suck, and take some adjusting. Your body is probably going to taunt you with relentless cravings, and it's going to be really hard not to give in, but let me tell you about all the benefits of nixing dairy from your diet, because there's a bunch.

For starters, the food industry has really stepped up their game in order to cater to all kinds of sensitivities, which means dairy alternatives are plentiful. If you're an ice cream connoisseur, for example, Ben & Jerry's released non-dairy pints that are just as delicious as their milky offerings, and So Delicious's cashew milk ice cream is amazing. You won't even miss the milk. Cheese lovers can get their fix from brands like Field Roast's Chao, Follow Your Heart, and if you're a pizza fanatic you have to give Daiya's pies a taste. As for those ice-cold glasses of milk, skip traditional gallons for plant-based alternatives like oat milk, almond milk, and, my personal fave, Elmhurst hazelnut milk.

Plus, on top of exploring all of these delicious dairy alternatives, saying buh-bye to lactose means saying hello to gorgeous, clear skin. And, without all that excessive fat weighing you down, chances are you'll have a ton of energy throughout the day because instead of milk, you might start your day off with hot water and lemon, instead. So don't think of lactose intolerance as yet another downside to adulthood. It's a struggle for sure, but rest assured the pros outweigh the cons.