Clinical Implications of Lactose Malabsorption Versus Lactose Intolerance

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Abstract

The majority of the world’s adult population and an estimated 80 million Americans are hypolactasic and hence malabsorb ingested lactose. Although lactose malabsorption is easily identified, less readily assessed is the clinically important question of how often does this malabsorption induce symptoms. This review summarizes: (1) knowledge concerning the etiology and diagnosis of hypolactasia and the pathophysiology of the symptoms of lactose malabsorption and (2) the results of well-controlled trials of the symptomatic response of lactose malabsorbers to varying dosages of lactose and the efficacy of therapeutic interventions to alleviate these symptoms. We conclude that the clinical significance of lactose malabsorption has been overestimated by both the lay public and physicians in that commonly ingested doses of lactose (ie, the quantity in a cup of milk) usually do not cause perceptible symptoms when ingested with a meal. Symptoms occur when the lactose dosage exceeds that in a cup of milk or when lactose is ingested without other nutrients. Simple dietary instruction, rather than the use of commercial products to reduce lactose intake, is recommended for the vast majority of lactose-malabsorbing subjects.

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