The Milky Words

“Lactis” is Latin for milk. Do you know your “Lact” words?

Lactose, lactase, lactate and lactation, lactic acid (and another lactate), lactobacillus . . . and more. Words that come from milk spill over onto nutrition.

Lactose is the characteristic sugar found in milk. By their chemistry, sugars are a fairly simple family but not all equal. Lactose is complex compared to other sugars and some people cannot digest it. They are lactose-intolerant. The enzyme that digests lactose is lactase. That “ase” tells you enzyme. For another example, lipase is a enzyme that digests “lipids”, the fats and oils.   If you are lactose-intolerant you may have tried “Lactade®” a registered trademark for oral lactase.

By definition, mammals are the family of animals in which females secrete milk for their infants in mammary glands. That’s us, our cats, dogs, squirrels, the friendly mouse in the kitchen, elephants and whales, etc.   The woman making milk is “lactating”, and her activity is “lactation”. Although it is correct and normal to say mothers “lactate”, there is also a completely different meaning for that same word.

Lactate” is also the alkaline, or non-acid form, of lactic acid. The acid/base pair, lactic acid—lactate, is at the core of muscle action, the fuel of muscle energy. The connection with milk? Almost accidental. When milk is fermented, to make yoghurt or cheese for example, lactic acid is produced from lactose. That is where the name arises, but in fact, most of the lactic acid/lactate action in your body is far removed from the food pathway. When you have sore, burning muscles after heavy exercise, there is more lactic acid in your blood than your respiration can accommodate because oxygen is needed to neutralize it.

Milk fermentation is due to bacteria that like milk, the family of lactobacillus, big players in the microbiome. In 1856, Louis Pasteur discovered Lactobacillus and its role in the making of lactic acid. Lactobacilli are the major component in probiotics, heavily advertised these days. And we do need them! The problem with such probiotic supplements is that they have to go thru the stomach with little protection from the stomach acid that can kill them. That is why I often encourage my patients to rely on naturally fermented foods for their probiotics more than supplements.

The biggest “lact” of all has much to do with milk, not nutrition. Have you ever been far enough from city lights on a clear night to really see the milky way? That glorious band of millions of stars, the closest edge of our own galaxy has seemed for thousands of years like a splash of milk across the heavens. Older than Latin’s “lactis”, the parent word shows in ancient Greek as “galact”, their word for milk, giving us “galaxy”, our milky way and “intergalactic” the regions of deep space between the galaxies we all know intimately from Starwars.   Contemplate the vastness of our universe; it inspires reverence, an emotion for adults as healthful as milk.

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