Lactose Overdose! Will I Survive?

October 7, 2010

I’m a firm believer in the importance of milk in a child’s diet. I was brought up on three glasses of milk a day. We had it plain – no Bournvita or Horlicks or even sugar – and cold. I loved it. My parents eventually allowed us to stop the lunch-time glass of milk, which made me feel all grown up, but I continued to have my milk twice a day until… I think until I started college/work. And then I continued to have one cup a day, though I started mixing it – still cold, or sometimes room temperature – with Nescafe. Eventually, of course, I switched to hot coffee, but it was still made entirely with milk. Back then, breakfast was my favourite meal – a big mug of milk with coffee in it, and a banana or an apple. All my favourite foods in one meal! Wow.

When we came back from the US in 1999 is the first time I recall have continuous stomach trouble. It took a while to work out that it was due to lactose intolerance. Looking back, I thought that perhaps it had been coming on for a few years before that, but it was never so bad. In the US, it seemed to have disappeared altogether, and I feasted not just on cold milk, but also on ice cream and cheese and flavoured yogurt without any problem.

For the last ten years, I’ve been aware of my lactose intolerance and all its various moods and manifestations. It comes and goes. For months at a stretch, it will be so mild that I can have generous helpings of curd or ice cream every day for days on end without any discomfort. When we travel to Calcutta it is always at its worst – a convenient and only mildly untrue basis for getting out of having to eat vast quantities of milky/creamy, sickly-sweet sweets. (In the process, I also miss out on some of the more delicious milk-based sweets, though. But you can’t avoid your cake and eat it too…)

When we trek in the Himalayas, I’ve noticed, my lactose intolerance really does become more acute. I avoid milk like the plague, of course, but even the slightest trace of ghee in the food is enough to set it off. There’s no apparent reason for this, so I can only surmise that my stomach is a little more irritable at high altitudes and this might be further exacerbated by drinking water straight out of rivers and streams (and you don’t want to even think about what all goes into the river and streams up in the hills).

Ever since the gastric trouble that the doctor is calling “functional dyspepsia” – which is a name they hang on a set of symptoms when they can’t find anything wrong that’s causing those symptoms – started, my lactose intolerance seems to be at its peak. Either that, or, I suspect, it is no longer possible to distinguish between bloating due to functional dyspepsia and bloating due to lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance used to lead quickly to a rather severe stomach upset with extreme cramping, but that no longer happens, so I’m a tad confused here.

Still, one thing is clear. Nowadays, I have to steer clear of all milk products. Even a couple of teaspoons of milk in my morning cuppa is enough to trigger the bloating. And that’s tragic. I gave up my milk-based coffee years ago, and I’ve never been able to stomach black coffee, so no milk means no coffee. And without my morning cuppa… life is just not the same anymore. The morning is strangely incomplete. The sleep won’t leave my eyes (and my brain) until I get my caffeine kick.

I struggle in other ways too. I can live without cheese and paneer, but cakes and ice creams? Is it even worth living if you can’t indulge in those once in a way (once in a day, more like)? I enjoy baking, and my baking uses liberal quantities of butter. How can I bake and then not eat? How can I not ever bake?

A much bigger problem looms ahead. Italy. The land of pizza and pasta. The land of pastry and gelato. Heaven help me – nine days of temptation! How on earth am I going to survive this?

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