I was surprised to learn that lactose is present in many medications, despite the fact that 30 to 50 million Americans are allergic to the milk sugar. Since lactose is slightly sweet, water soluble and non-reactive, it is a common filler in prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
What is Lactose Intolerance?
Lactose intolerance is a person’s inability to digest milk sugar due to a deficiency of the lactase enzyme. Not to be confused with a milk allergy, which is one’s inability to digest milk proteins, it causes abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and nausea.
People sometimes confuse lactose intolerance with a milk allergy. While lactose intolerance is a digestive system disorder, a milk allergy is a reaction by the body’s immune system to one or more milk proteins. An allergic reaction to milk can be life threatening even if the person eats or drinks only a small amount of milk or milk product. A milk allergy most commonly occurs in the first year of life, while lactose intolerance occurs more often during adolescence or adulthood. – Lactose Intolerance – National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC)
Although being lactose intolerant is not life threatening, the symptoms can be severe. The main treatment for lactose intolerance is diet modification and/or taking over-the-counter medications that contain the lactase enzyme.
Lactose in Medications
Lactose is present in more than 20% of prescription drugs and about 6% of over-the-counter medication, especially in birth control pills and, ironically, those that treat stomach acid and gas. Compared to milk and foods measured in grams, medications contain small amounts of lactose measured in milligrams, which is why most pharmacists claim that none or an extremely small reaction will occur.
But, an article co-authored by five pharmacists claims that although reports are rare, medications containing lactose can cause symptoms and hinder the effectiveness of the medication:
The amount of lactose in oral medications generally is dwarfed by comparison to the lactose content of many dietary substances, particularly dairy products. An 8-oz glass of milk contains 10 to 12 g lactose, while medication amounts are measured in milligrams. Nonetheless, these seemingly trivial amounts can be significant in patients with a severe condition. – Lactose: The Hidden Culprit in Medication Intolerance? – Healio Orthopedics
Lack of Proper Labeling
Due to the lack of labeling of lactose quantity, the consumer is usually unable to detect the milk sugar without further research. Since lactose amounts can vary by lot and manufacturers, the five Pharmacists claim that one cannot make a list of lactose-free medications. But, a lactose-intolerant blogger has posted a list of lactose-free birth control pills (and injections) on his site after consulting with a pharmacist. And the Information Centre at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain has issued a list of lactose-free medications.
I hope this is some added relief for those who suffer from lactose intolerance. And please make sure to research and read the label and instructions for any medications you are planning to take. After all, to quote Nobel Prize winning biochemist Martin H. Fischer, “Half the modern drugs could well be thrown out the window, except the birds might eat them.”
Corinne Kohrherr is a Licensed Acupuncturist, Board Certified Chinese Herbalist, Registered Nurse, Licensed Massage Therapist and DONA Certified Childbirth Doula. She is a holistic healthcare practitioner and lives in New York City with her dogs Martini and Olive.