A baby produces the enzyme lactase, which helps break down the otherwise hard-to-digest lactose (milk sugar) in the intestinal tract. If children or adults stop drinking milk for an extended period of time, they may lose the ability to produce lactase in sufficient quantities.
Such people are lactose-intolerant and will suffer from intestinal discomfort and other ill effects if they consume too much milk. The symptoms usually occur because the afflicted person's small intestine does not produce enough lactase to digest the lactose. The person feels bloated because the undigested milk sugars pull extra water into the stomach. He is also apt to suffer from diarrhea and flatulence because the undigested lactose passes into the large intestine, where bacteria convert it into acids and gases.
By gradually reintroducing his body to milk, a lactose-intolerant will eventually be able to produce more lactase, but never in the quantity that was possible before he went on the "milk wagon".
Most lactose-intolerant people can eat cultured-milk foods (cheese or yogurt, for instance) or drink cultured milk, such as buttermilk. Lactose is virtually nonexistent in those products because as bacteria transform the milk into a cultured product, they digest the lactose, turning it into lactic acid. Lactic acid plays a large part in giving cultured-milk products their characteristic sourness.
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