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Lactose intolerance, a human evolutionary problem

Glass with milk and biscuits

Lactose intolerance is a health problem that has to do with our evolution as a species and where we have lived. In fact, globally, it is rare to be lactose tolerant.

Between 30 and 50 percent of the European population is lactose intolerant.. Sensitivity to milk protein, however, is distributed in a peculiar way: it is greater as we travel from the north to the south of the Old Continent, and an enzyme, lactase, is to blame.

The human body stops producing this protein at the end of the breastfeeding period. Thus, breast milk is only available to infants who need it. This has been evolutionary; when we grow up, our gut stops producing lactase. This genetic characteristic of the human species has exceptions since human evolution allowed thousands of people to eat dairy, their only source of animal food, thanks to a genetic mutation.

Imagine an environment with no agricultural products and few livestock, what did they eat before, milk products or livestock? This was the case in northern European countries thousands of years ago, where the cold soil did not allow crops to be grown. If we leave the European continent, we see how this intolerance can reach almost 100 per cent of the population. per cent of the population in the southernmost parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance has symptoms of varying intensity. In fact, many people never know they are lactose intolerant. and others react almost allergically. Although intolerance is not an allergy.

Some of the most common symptoms are: gas and flatulence, cramps, stomach bloating, feeling unwell, tiredness, skin problems, nervousness, ...... All these symptoms are caused by eating lactose-containing foods.

How can we know if we are lactose intolerant?

Foods such as cheese, yoghurts, ice cream.... are some examples of products containing lactose. But it is not only milk derivatives, lactose can also be present in meats and sausages, snacks, biscuits, biscuits, soups and preparations similar or in products made from processed flours.

Lactose is a sugar found in mammalian milk and is made up of two molecules, galactose and glucose. This sugar is added to many processed foods. and can therefore also cause the symptoms mentioned above. This is why it is so important to read food labelling and avoid processed foods.

But if we know that lactose can cause these reactions, why is it used in food production? The food industry knows all the secrets of the chemistry that makes food preservation and even its attractiveness possible. For example, in sausages, lactose promotes fermentation and masks the unpleasant taste of other substances added for production; adds flavour to snacks or texture to packaged soups and purees.

In many cases we do not identify the symptoms of lactose intolerance with food. If we follow a varied diet, we ingest all kinds of substances and molecules and it can be difficult to know whether the food that is causing us discomfort is one or another.

On the other hand, the mild discomfort we feel may not be a problem and we get used to living with these symptoms. Moreover, intolerance can be acquired over time.

In this sense, we have to differentiate between primary or hereditary intolerance and acquired intolerance.. The first is the most common and is determined by our genetics. In fact, this intolerance is a hereditary symptom and can be passed on to family members, although it only occurs over the years, as lactase activity decreases.

If it is not hereditary, lactose intolerance may have been acquired over the years and, in many cases, related to an operation and pathologies such as Crohn's disease or coeliac disease.

However, giving up dairy is not something to be done lightly: lactose contains vitamin D, helps to absorb calcium and strengthens the immune system. In any case, if we are lactose intolerant, there is a lot we can do to restore our body's functionality and reduce sensitivity to this sugar, for example, by taking a natural treatment such as the ones we develop at Biosalud Day Hospital.

Mariano Bueno

Dr. Mariano Bueno and his team

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