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If I quit dairy completely, will I become more intolerant?

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The question

I'm mildly lactose intolerant. If I quit dairy altogether, will I become more intolerant? Is there any way I can build up my tolerance?

The answer

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Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products.

It occurs when the body does not make enough lactase, an enzyme found in the lining of the small intestine, that digests and breaks down lactose. When undigested lactose moves into the colon, it interacts with normal intestinal bacteria which can result in the uncomfortable symptoms of lactose intolerance such as bloating, gas, cramps, and diarrhea.

Given the large number of individuals who suffer from lactose intolerance, the possibility of developing a tolerance over time would be quite welcomed. Unfortunately, the body's ability to produce lactase cannot be changed, so quitting dairy altogether does not increase intolerance as the amount of the enzyme remains the same.

For this same reason, there is no way to increase your lactase or build tolerance.

Every individual is unique and has different amounts of the enzyme which is why certain people with lactose intolerance can take in larger amounts of dairy products than others. While you cannot build it up, you can test your tolerance level by gradually introducing small amounts of lactose containing products to see how much your body can handle.

Despite there being no cure for lactose intolerance, there are an abundance of low-lactose free products and alternatives that you can choose to avoid the uncomfortable symptoms. Over-the-counter lactase enzyme supplements are also a good option that can help aid digestion when eating or drinking lactose containing products.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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