It depends on your body’s unique speed of digestion and elimination.
Common condition, unique experience
Half of the population may find it difficult to digest lactose, but that doesn’t mean they all experience the same symptoms, with the same intensity, for the same length of time.
The same amount of milk or ice cream can produce extremely different reactions to different lactose intolerant individuals. Some may experience relatively mild symptoms such as bloating and gas, while others may suffer from a full-blown flare-up with severe abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and nausea.
There are still no established findings why the symptoms of lactose intolerance manifest differently across the patients who suffer from this condition, but experts hypothesise the different levels of gut bacteria present in our bodies, as well as genetics, may be affecting the way the symptoms present themselves.
Variables of temporary discomfort
The time it takes for the symptoms to appear vary, but experts place it from 30 minutes to two hours after you have ingested products that contain lactose such as milk and other dairy products.
The severity of your symptoms is also directly proportional to the amount of lactose you have consumed: higher levels of lactose consumption would naturally result to more severe symptoms. Another factor that affects the intensity of your symptoms is how fast your body’s lactase can break down the lactose. This means having higher levels of lactase can help minimise the discomfort these symptoms bring.
How long your symptoms last will ultimately depend on your body’s speed of digesting and eliminating the offending food from your system. Keep in mind that there is no standard time for food digestion and elimination in humans, so there is no universally-accepted answer to this frequently asked question.
Some people may take 12 hours, others 24 hours, while others may take as long as 72 hours to fully digest and eliminate the lactose-containing food from their system. Research shows that the symptoms usually peak 5-10 hours after you have consumed the lactose-containing food, before subsiding.
Receiving a diagnosis of lactose intolerance may pose some challenges, but there are many ways to lessen the discomfort it brings.
Probiotic drinks have been shown to improve the symptoms of lactose intolerance, particularly abdominal pain. Taking over-the-counter tablets or drops that contain lactase (e.g., Lactaid, Dairy Ease) before your meal may also help you digest lactose and minimise the severity of your symptoms.
Under the guidance of a certified dietitian, you may also reduce the amount of lactose in your diet. It is important to find alternative calcium sources if you are reducing your intake of milk and other dairy products so as not to suffer from calcium and nutrient-deficiencies. Eating fermented milk products such as yoghurt, aged cheese such as cheddar and parmesan, and lactose-free soy or almond milk can help ensure you still get your daily dose of calcium without the discomfort.
Consuming small amounts of dairy products together with your meals may also reduce the severity of the symptoms.