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Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose – a sugar found in milk and dairy products. Lactose intolerance occurs when your body doesn’t make enough (or any) lactase – the enzyme that breaks down lactose into fuel your body can use.
More than half of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. Common symptoms include gas, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, or cramping after consuming lactose. Lactose intolerance is usually managed by dietary modifications, and, during pregnancy, it’s no different. The main thing to remember with lactose intolerance during pregnancy is that you need to consume the right amounts of all your nutrients. If you avoid dairy, you may not be giving your baby everything he or she needs to grow.
Specifically, it’s important to get enough calcium when you’re pregnant because it helps build your baby’s bones and teeth. Calcium is found in many dairy products and women who are lactose intolerant often don’t consume enough of this key nutrient. If you can’t (or choose not to) consume dairy products, choose other foods that are high in calcium such as salmon, almonds, broccoli, edamame, chickpeas, pinto beans, tofu, and spinach. Many drinks and foods are also fortified with calcium, and you can take a calcium supplement if it’s OK with your doctor.
Most pregnant women should try to get about 1000 to 1200 mg of calcium every day. Importantly, if you don’t consume enough calcium during pregnancy, your body will draw calcium from your own bones and teeth and use it for your baby. While your baby will continue to grow strong and healthy, you may suffer long-term effects like bone loss and osteoporosis.
Pregnancy is often associated with uncomfortable symptoms (especially digestive ones) and new food preferences and aversions, and you may notice changes in how your body reacts to different foods. But, pregnancy does not cause lactose intolerance. If you think you may be lactose intolerant, talk to your doctor about proper testing and dietary changes. He may want to wait until after you give birth to complete a full evaluation of your symptoms.
Sometimes, your symptoms of lactose intolerance may get better during pregnancy. You might even be able to drink milk or eat ice cream without those pesky gastrointestinal symptoms. If you don’t want to avoid dairy, you can try lactase supplements. These are over-the-counter tablets that you can take with dairy that will give your body the lactase that it needs for proper digestion. The enzyme stays in your digestive system and doesn’t enter your blood, so there’s virtually no risk to your baby. Still, it’s always best to check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any new medications or supplements during pregnancy.
Lactose intolerance won’t harm your baby. As long as you eat a healthy, balanced diet (whether it includes dairy or not), there are no negative effects for your baby if you are lactose intolerant.