Home Health: The Dangers And Benefits Of Digestive Enzyme Supplements

Learn what enzymes are and their drawbacks and benefits in treating digestive problems.

A new nutritional supplement, or really group of supplements, getting a lot of buzz these days is digestive enzyme supplements. These products are often recommended for people who have digestive problems such as no longer being able to enjoy spicy foods. The theory is that taking a few pills will allow you to digest food you were having trouble with more easily, thus easing your discomfort and allowing you to enjoy foods you might otherwise have given up.

Before we consider whether these products are necessary or even helpful, we need to discuss what an enzyme is and why they are said to be beneficial. Basically, enzymes are protein molecules, present in all the plants and animals we eat. These molecules are considered catalysts, which means they make chemical reactions in the body happen faster. They fuel all sorts of reactions in the body, not just digestion. They help us breathe, eat, drink, swallow and digest food, aid in cell growth and help move substances around the body.

Our bodies make enzymes naturally, and we also get them from foods. The theory behind the need to supplement digestive enzymes is that because people eat such rotten diets, full of fast food, refined sugars, fat and calories, the body is taxed and needs extra help to digest all that mess. It is also said that the body makes fewer enzymes as we age, thus the body is less able to process the foods we eat, which proponents of supplements say can lead to illness.

Because all of our food is so processed, the enzymes present in the food are destroyed and it is made more difficult to digest. If you ate a raw diet, you wouldn't have a problem with enzymes. But cooked foods rely on the body's own digestive enzymes to process, and, again, over time, your body ceases to make as much enzyme and you can have trouble digesting your food. Particularly if your body is under stress because of an illness, pregnancy, age or other health issues, enzyme supplements may help your body work more efficiently and allow you to eliminate toxins your body would not otherwise be able to rid itself of.

While there are many different kinds of enzymes, the main ones having to do with digestion are protease (digests protein), amylase (digests carbohydrates) and lipase (digests fat). A lack of the right kind of right amount of enzyme is thought to trigger illness by allowing the buildup of toxins and undigested materials in the body.

Companies sell all sorts of products with varying types and doses of enzymes, often mixed with vitamins, minerals and herbs said to aid digestion, promote regularity, reduce anxiety and help with a host of other health problems. Both pharmaceutical and natural enzymes are available. Some enzymes come from animals (such as the pancreas of a pig) or from plants (papayas and pineapples, for example).

One to four pills may be taken with meals, depending on the size of the meal and the severity of your problem. Enzyme sellers recommend buying pills that contain several different enzymes, unless you know you have a particular problem, say, with fat (some say high cholesterol is based on an inability to digest fat), then you can take an enzyme just for that condition. Certain enzyme supplements can interact with diabetes medications, and others cause problems if you take blood thinners, so if you are on these medicines or have serious health conditions you should consult a doctor before starting to take enzymes.

Further, little research has been done on the effect of enzymes on pregnant women, so if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant you ought to give the pills a pass. People taking the pills are advised to stop if they experience severe intestinal distress or develop a rash, as they may be allergic to the product. Additionally, if you know you're allergic to pineapples, papaya, figs or other fruits used in enzyme supplements, look for a product that does not contain those ingredients. And if you find that the pills have not helped you after taking them for a month, discontinue use.

But do these products really work? Those who support the use of enzymes will cite studies that show increase in the size of the pancreas in animals fed cooked diets (this illustrates stress on the body and stunted the animals' growth) and that rats fed enzymes lived longer than those fed a regular diet. Other studies show benefits of enzymes across the immune system, from easing upset stomach, heartburn and digestive problems to providing support for cancer patients, limiting the growth of yeast in the body and treating rosacea, among other virtues.

Others say there is no clinical evidence that supplementing with enzymes has any benefit in terms of aiding digestion or preventing disease. They say it's likely the enzyme pill would be digested and the enzymes would not be absorbed by the body. The coatings of some of the pills might not even fully digest in the system. There is no evidence that these short-lived enzymes in a bottle, if they could survive digestion, would live long enough to be absorbed to do any good.

Of course there are legitimate enzyme deficiencies that some people suffer from. These are relatively rare, can be found by a doctor and are treated by more powerful supplements (pills or shots) more powerful than those commonly available.

And there are digestive problems caused by enzymes that can be treated with over the counter therapies: lactose intolerance and flatulence caused by beans and other foods. There are several over the counter concoctions for both of these specific ailments that seem to help the body digest foods more comfortably. They need to be taken with the food that gives you trouble.

It's fair to say the jury is still out on enzyme supplements. Some of them certainly are beneficial if you have a specific health problem and take products designed for that health problem. There's no conclusive evidence that more general types of digestive enzyme supplements are helpful to the body, but many people swear by them, especially when they eat a fatty meal. Others say the pills are simply a waste of money. Either way, if you are a generally healthy person (without diabetes and not taking blood thinners) or if you take the pills with the guidance of a doctor or naturopath, they won't actually hurt you.

If the potential benefits of these concoctions are intriguing to you, you can get a month's supply (they are rather expensive) and see if you notice a difference. If not, you can simply stop taking them and know that enzymes do not work, or at least they do not seem to work for you. Everyone's body is different, so when you read success stories and warnings you need to remember that the same thing might or might not happen to you.

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