Milky words

“Lactis” is Latin for milk and Lact is the root of many words:

Lactose, lactase, lactate and lactation, lactic acid, lactobacillus, and the list goes on!  Words that stem from “milk” but have different meanings!

Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk. Lactose has a more complex chemistry compared to other sugars. Some people cannot digest it, meaning they are lactose-intolerant.  The enzyme that digests lactose is lactase – the“ase” suffix tells you it is an enzyme.  If you are lactose-intolerant you may have tried “Lactade®” – a registered trademark for oral lactase so you can eat things like ice-cream!

Another lact word is lactate! Mammals who are females “lactate” which means that they secrete milk for their infants. Us, our dogs, the friendly mouse in the kitchen, elephants, whales and more are all mammals and they all lactate milk to feed their young. However, not all uses of the word “lactate” are so clearly related to milk.  

Lactate” is also the alkaline, or non-acid form, of lactic acid.  The acid/base pair, lactic acid—lactate, is the fuel of muscle energy.  And what is its connection to milk?  Almost accidental – the fermentation process of milk that makes cheese converts lactose into lactic acid, which has the same name as the lactic acid fueling your muscles!  

That is where the name arises, but most of the lactic acid/lactate action in your body is far removed food.  When your muscles are sore and burning after you exercise it is because there is more lactic acid in your blood than the oxygen needed to neutralize it.

Another lact is lactobacillus, which plays a big role in fermenting milk and a big part of the microbiome. In 1856, Louis Pasteur discovered Lactobacillus and its role in the making of lactic acid.  Lactobacilli are the major component in the recently popular probiotics and we do need probiotics!  But, the problem with supplements is that they pass through the stomach acid with little protection and so they are destroyed.  That is why I often encourage my patients to rely on naturally fermented foods for their probiotics in take.

The biggest “lact” of all has much to do with outer space, not nutrition.  Have you ever been far away enough from city lights to 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 ancient Greek word for milk is “galact.” Galact is the root word for “galaxy” and “intergalactic” – words that spark images of outer-space that we know intimately from popular films like Starwars.

Contemplate the vastness of our universe and the multiplicity of meaning each word can have; it inspires reverence, an emotion for adults as healthy as milk.

Comments or questions? Write to   Nicole Constant is a registered Doctor of Naturopathy.   Her website is:  www.IndividualCare.CA.


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