Lactose intolerance is usually the result of your body not producing enough lactase.
Lactase is an enzyme (a protein that causes a chemical reaction to occur) normally produced in your small intestine that's used to digest lactose.
If you have a lactase deficiency, it means your body doesn't produce enough lactase.
After eating or drinking something containing lactose, it passes down your oesophagus (gullet) into your stomach, where it's digested. The digested food then passes into your small intestine.
The lactase in your small intestine should break lactose down into glucose and galactose (other types of sugar), which are then absorbed into your bloodstream. If there isn't enough lactase, the unabsorbed lactose moves through your digestive system to your colon (large intestine).
Bacteria in the colon ferment (break down) the lactose, producing fatty acids and gases such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen and methane. The breakdown of the lactose in the colon, and the resulting acids and gases that are produced, cause the symptoms of lactose intolerance such as Wind and bloating.
The main types of lactase deficiency are outlined below.
Primary lactase deficiency is the most common cause of lactose intolerance worldwide. This type of lactase deficiency is caused by an inherited genetic fault that runs in families.
Primary lactase deficiency develops when your lactase production decreases as your diet becomes less reliant on milk and dairy products. This is usually after the age of two, when breastfeeding or bottle-feeding has stopped, although the symptoms may not be noticeable until adulthood.
Secondary lactase deficiency is a shortage of lactase caused by a problem in your small intestine. It can occur at any age, and may be the result of another condition, surgery to your small intestine, or taking certain medication.
Secondary lactase deficiency is the most common cause of lactose intolerance in the UK, particularly in babies and young children.
Possible causes of secondary lactase deficiency include:
The decrease in the production of lactase in secondary lactase deficiency is sometimes only temporary, but it may be permanent if it's caused by a long-term condition.
It's also possible to develop secondary lactase deficiency later in life, even without another condition to trigger it. This is because your body's production of lactase naturally reduces as you get older.
Congenital lactase deficiency is a rare condition that runs in families and is found in newborn babies.
It's caused by an inheritedgenetic fault that means affected babies produce very little or no lactase.
The genetic mutation responsible forcongenital lactase deficiency is passed on in an autosomal recessive inheritance pattern. This meansboth parents must have a copy of the faulty gene to pass onthe condition.
Some babies born prematurely (before the 37th week of pregnancy) have a temporary lactose intolerance because their small intestine wasn't fully developedby the time they were born.
This is known as developmental lactase deficiency and it usually improves asaffected babies get older.
Lactose intolerance is a common digestive problem where the body is unable to digest lactose, a type of sugar mainly found in milk and dairy products.
Lactose intolerance is usually caused by your body not producing enough lactase - an enzyme (protein that causes a chemical reaction to occur) that digests lactose.
It's important to visit your GP if you think you or your child may have lactose intolerance, as the symptoms can be similar to other conditions.
There's no cure for lactose intolerance, but most people are able to control their symptoms by making changes to their diet.
Zoe Bastion is an assistant content producer at the BBC. She has had primary lactose intolerance for most of her life.
Gary Alexander is a writer and author who lives in London. He suffered from secondary lactose intolerance for several months after a severe bout of gastroenteritis.