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Digestive Enzymes

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Updated August 05, 2013

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Digestive enzymes are proteins involved in the digestion of food. Found naturally in the body, digestive enzymes are also sold in dietary supplement form. Proponents claim that these enzymes can help treat a variety of health problems, such as digestive disorders.

Secreted by the pancreas, digestive enzymes aid the body in breaking down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. When normal functioning of the pancreas is disrupted (due to illness or injury) resulting in insufficient enzyme production, the body may be unable to properly absorb these nutrients. Digestive enzyme supplements are thought to protect against this malabsorption.

Digestive enzyme supplements often contain a mixture of enzymes, such as proteolytic enzymes (needed to digest protein), lipase (needed to digest fat), and amylase (needed to digest carbohydrates). Proteolytic enzyme supplements are also available, such as bromelain and papain.

Uses for Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes are said to aid in the treatment of the following conditions:

In addition, proteolytic enzymes are said to lower cholesterol. Although digestive enzymes are normally taken with meals for digestive purposes, when taken in between meals on an empty stomach, they are said to stimulate the immune system, manage arthritis, reduce inflammation, improve liver health, and fight cancer.

Benefits Of Digestive Enzymes

Here's a look at some key findings on the potential health benefits of supplements containing digestive enzymes:

1) Irritable Bowel Syndrome

A digestive enzyme known as pancrealipase may alleviate some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, according to a pilot study published in Frontline Gastroenterology in 2011. For the study, 69 patients with irritable bowel syndrome were given either pancrealipase or a placebo before consuming foods known to trigger their symptoms. Study results showed that those treated with pancrealipase experienced a significantly greater improvement in such symptoms as cramping, bloating, and pain.

2) Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Several preliminary studies suggest that bromelain may help manage colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease. For example, a 2010 study published in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases found that bromelain helped decrease inflammation of the colon in mice with colitis.

3) Cancer

Digestive enzymes may be beneficial to people undergoing cancer treatment, according to a 2008 report published in Integrative Cancer Therapies. In their analysis of preliminary studies and clinical trials on the effects of enzyme therapy (including proteolytic enzymes) on people with cancer, the report's authors found that enzymes may reduce several side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy (including nausea, fatigue, and weight loss).

4) Arthritis

Bromelain may help relieve pain related to osteoarthritis, according to a research review published in Arthritis Research & Therapy in 2006. Looking at nine clinical trials testing bromelain's effects on osteoarthritis patients, the review's authors found some evidence that bromelain may offer pain-reducing effects similar to those of diclofenac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug often prescribed for osteoarthritis).

Safety

Digestive enzymes may trigger a number of side effects, including stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. In addition, some individuals may experience allergic reactions to digestive enzymes.

It's important to note that self-treating a chronic condition (such as chronic pancreatitis) with digestive enzymes and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. If you're considering the use of digestive enzymes in treatment of a chronic condition, make sure to consult your physician before starting your supplement regimen.

Learn more about using supplements safely.

Where To Find Digestive Enzymes

Widely available for purchase online, digestive enzymes are sold in many natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

Sources

Ameye LG, Chee WS. "Osteoarthritis and nutrition. From nutraceuticals to functional foods: a systematic review of the scientific evidence." Arthritis Res Ther. 2006;8(4):R127.

Beuth J. "Proteolytic enzyme therapy in evidence-based complementary oncology: fact or fiction?" Integr Cancer Ther. 2008 Dec;7(4):311-6.

Fieker A, Philpott J, Armand M. "Enzyme replacement therapy for pancreatic insufficiency: present and future." Clin Exp Gastroenterol. 2011;4:55-73.

Hale LP, Chichlowski M, Trinh CT, Greer PK. "Dietary supplementation with fresh pineapple juice decreases inflammation and colonic neoplasia in IL-10-deficient mice with colitis." Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2010 Dec;16(12):2012-21.

Hale LP, Greer PK, Trinh CT, Gottfried MR. "Treatment with oral bromelain decreases colonic inflammation in the IL-10-deficient murine model of inflammatory bowel disease." Clin Immunol. 2005 Aug;116(2):135-42.

Leipner J, Saller R. "Systemic enzyme therapy in oncology: effect and mode of action." Drugs. 2000 Apr;59(4):769-80.

Money ME, Walkowiak J, Virgilio C, Talley NJ. "Pilot study: a randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial of pancrealipase for the treatment of postprandial irritable bowel syndrome-diarrhoea." Frontline Gastroenterol. 2011 Jan;2(1):48-56.

Roxas M. "The role of enzyme supplementation in digestive disorders." Altern Med Rev. 2008 Dec;13(4):307-14.

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