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Lactase Supplements

What Should I Know About Them?

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Updated April 25, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Lactase supplements are a type of dietary supplement typically used to treat lactose intolerance. Produced naturally in the lining of your small intestine, lactase is an enzyme involved in breakdown of lactose (a sugar found in milk and other dairy products). Since some people don't produce enough lactase on their own, taking lactase supplements is thought to aid the body in digesting milk.

Uses for Lactase Supplements

In most cases, people take lactase supplements in order to avoid experiencing symptoms of lactose intolerance when consuming dairy products. These symptoms include cramps, diarrhea, gas, and bloating.

Since dairy products are a major source of calcium, many people use lactase supplements to treat lactose intolerance and acquire the calcium needed to protect against conditions like osteoporosis. Crucial for building and maintaining healthy bones, calcium is also essential for blood clotting, proper functioning of muscles, and the sending and receiving of nerve signals.

Benefits of Lactase Supplements

Although research on the use of lactase supplements is fairly limited, several studies suggest that taking lactase supplements may be of some benefit to people with lactose intolerance.

In a 2010 study published in European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences, for instance, researchers assigned 60 people with lactose intolerance to one of three treatments: lactase supplements, supplements containing Lactobacillus reuteri (a type of probiotic), or a placebo. Study results showed that both lactase supplements and Lactobacillus reuteri were more effective than the placebo in reducing gastrointestinal symptoms brought on by consumption of lactose. However, lactase supplements were significantly more effective than Lactobacillus reuteri in reducing gas.

In addition, a 2005 report published in the Journal of the American College of Nutritionstates that lactase supplements can aid in the digestion of lactose among people with lactose intolerance.

Safety

Lactase supplements are considered safe for most people. Although lactase supplements generally do not cause side effects, they may trigger allergic reactions in some individuals. If you experience symptoms such as hives, difficulty breathing, and/or tightness in your chest after using lactase supplements, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Alternatives to Using Lactase Supplements

While dairy products are a top source of calcium, it's possible to achieve adequate calcium intake without consuming dairy products. Therefore, the use of lactase supplements may not be necessary for people with lactose intolerance. Non-dairy sources of calcium include:

  • calcium-fortified soymilk (299 mg per 8-ounce serving)
  • calcium-fortified orange juice (261 mg per 6-ounce serving)
  • firm tofu made with calcium sulfate (253 mg per 1/2 cup)
  • kale (100 mg per cup)
  • bok choy (74 mg per cup)
  • whole-wheat bread (30 mg per slice)
  • broccoli (21 mg per ½ cup)

Do You Need Lactase Supplements?

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include gas, diarrhea, and swelling in the stomach following the consumption of dairy products. If you think you might be lactose-intolerant, talk to your doctor. There are a number of medical tests (including blood, breath, and stool tests) that can help your doctor determine if you have lactose intolerance.

A number of factors may contribute to lactose intolerance, including medical disorders affecting the small intestine (such as celiac disease and Crohn's disease), increasing age, and complications from chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Where to Find Lactase Supplements

Widely available for purchase online, lactase supplements can be purchased in many natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

Lactase supplements are typically sold as capsules or chewable tablets.

Sources

Byers KG, Savaiano DA. "The myth of increased lactose intolerance in African-Americans." J Am Coll Nutr. 2005 Dec;24(6 Suppl):569S-73S.

National Institutes of Health. "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium." Last accessed January 2013.

Ojetti V, Gigante G, Gabrielli M, Ainora ME, Mannocci A, Lauritano EC, Gasbarrini G, Gasbarrini A. "The effect of oral supplementation with Lactobacillus reuteri or tilactase in lactose intolerant patients: randomized trial." Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2010 Mar;14(3):163-70.

Suarez FL, Zumarraga LM, Furne JK, Levitt MD. "Nutritional supplements used in weight-reduction programs increase intestinal gas in persons who malabsorb lactose." J Am Diet Assoc. 2001 Dec;101(12):1447-52.

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