KEY POINTS:

  • Digestive enzymes are a critical part of normal digestion.
  • Digestive enzymes are proteins made in the body. They help break down the food we eat into small molecules that we can absorb and use for fuel, repair and growth.
  • There are three main types of digestive enzymes:
    1. Amylases: this enzyme digests chains of starches into single sugar molecules. The most well known commercial enzyme is one that breaks down beans. It contains an amylase called alpha galactosidase. The one that digests lactose (milk sugar) contains the enzyme lactase.
    2. Lipase: this enzyme digests fats by breaking fat chains into single fatty acids. The body needs lipase to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Not enough lipase production can cause poor absorption and weight loss.
    3. Proteases: this category of enzymes digests proteins into smaller pieces. This allows them to be absorbed and used as building blocks in the body. Bromelain (from pineapple) and papaya enzymes are examples of proteases.
  • If the body does not make enough digestive enzymes, it can lead to symptoms like gas, bloating or diarrhea.
  • There are two basic types of digestive enzyme supplements:
    • Broad spectrum (contain a blend of amylases, lipase and proteases)
    • Enzymes targeted to digest specific food components, like beans, lactose or proteins (like gluten)
  • The main medical indications for enzyme supplementation are pancreatic disease and lactose intolerance.
  • You may have seen the over the counter supplements that claim to digest gluten. These supplements are usually based on the protease known as DPPIV,1 Please note: There is no evidence that it is effective in digesting gluten. It does not make eating gluten safe for those with celiac disease.
SPECIAL TIPS 
Enzyme supplements don’t build up in the body, so you have to take them every time you eat a food that requires that specific enzyme. You want the enzyme to be in the stomach at the same time as the food you are trying to help digest.

You know if a product contains an enzyme if an ingredient ends with “ase”, for example- lactase.

TAKE HOME MESSAGES:

  • Digestive enzymes are often made for specific conditions.
  • There are many different enzyme formulas on the market. Most are safe and can improve digestive symptoms.
  • If you have celiac disease you are at a higher risk for digestive enzyme deficiencies which can cause on-going digestive symptoms even if you are strictly gluten-free.
  • Talk to your doctor or dietitian before starting any enzymes on your own. Make sure they are gluten-free.

References:

  1. Ehren J, Morón B, Martin E, Bethune MT, Gray GM, Khosla C. A food-grade enzyme preparation with modest gluten detoxification properties. PLoS One. 2009 Jul 21;4(7):e6313.

Revision Date: May 2, 2013;
Authors: Christine Doherty, N.D.
Editors: Melinda Dennis, MS, RD, LDN and Daniel Leffler MD, MS

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