Is lactaid really a magic cure-all for people who are lactose intolerant?

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Not being able to eat ice cream, cheese and all the dairy pleasures of the world is a sad, sad thing. Luckily Lactaid, the over the counter pill that claims to help lactose intolerance, is ready to save the day. But is the pill really a magic cure-all for those who can't process dairy products? 


"Lactaid is the name of a medication that has lactase, the enzyme we need to digest lactose, which is natural in milk," Dr. Ashkan Farhadi, a gastroenterologist at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA explained in an interview. Being lactose intolerant means that your body does not produce enough lactase to digest lactose and in order to tolerate it, you'll need a supplement, like Lactaid. 

"[Taking Lactaid] works but it will not be comparable to having a normal lactase level." Someone who is lactose intolerant is not entirely deficient of lactase, they may be okay with a small slice of pizza, but with a large slice they will start to feel sick. This is where the supplemental lactase comes in to help your body digest lactose. 

About 65% of people are lactose intolerant, with rates of lactose intolerance increasing into adulthood, i.e. further from infancy when babies rely on lactase to process breast milk. Farhadi said that as many people grow older, they can lose their tolerance for dairy products and have trouble digesting them as  older people may become deficient in lactase, the enzyme which Lactaid produces inside your body. 

Lactose intolerance can also effect different populations at more extreme rates. 90% of adults of East Asian descent are reported to be lactose intolerant while those of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian descent are also more likely to be lactose intolerant. Only about 5% of people of Northern European descent are lactose intolerant, which the U.S. National Library of Medicine attributes to the population's long dependence on unfermented milk products.

Lactaid may work differently for every user


The key to getting Lactaid to work, however, is learning how much your body needs. "You have to judge how much is appropriate for a slice of pizza or a scoop of ice cream or lasagna," Farhadi said. While some people may require only two pills to digest that tempting swirl of soft serve, others may need four. It's a trial and error process, that may be not so pleasant at times, but taking Lactaid can seriously help you enjoy dairy again, Farhadi suggested. 

Lactaid may be the most commonly known name for lactase supplements, but there are several brands on the market that work similarly. Lactaid as a brand also makes other lactose-free products, like Lactaid milk, which is a dairy milk that has had the lactose removed so those who are lactose intolerant can still digest it. 

But Lactaid won't work for everyone


Not every person who suffers from lactose intolerance can be magically helped by Lactaid, however, as the effects of Lactaid do not permanently help your body produce more lactase, and they're not a complete replacement for the natural lactase missing from the body. The Mayo Clinic explains that, sadly, lactase supplements taken either before or with food won't work for everyone.Those whose bodies naturally produce more lactase will be less sensitive to lactose, or less lactose intolerant, than those whose bodies produce very little lactase. For some, their large lactase deficiencies just cannot be supplemented by a pill. 

It's a good thing, then, that more and more dairy companies are finding milk alternatives. Even the lactose intolerant can enjoy certain varieties of Ben and Jerry's, thank goodness.