Can Digestive Enzyme Supplements Ease Stomach Woes?

Q. <font SIZE=”2″ face=”Arial”>My health food store carries many digestive enzyme supplements, such as Enzymatic Therapy’s Mega-Zyme and Solgar’s Digestive Aide. Would they help me digest food better?

A. <font SIZE="2" face=”Arial”>Perhaps, though it’s not likely, unless you have a specific enzyme deficiency. In that case, enzyme supplements are often recommended, even prescribed. Whether they can improve general digestion, however, is less certain. <font SIZE=”2″>

Digestive enzymes are specialized proteins that help break down food into nutrients, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream from the intestines. They are found in the mouth and stomach and are secreted from the pancreas into the small intestine, where most digestion occurs.

Different types of enzymes work on different types of foods. Amylases break down carbohydrates. (Lactase is one example; it digests lactose, the sugar in milk.) Lipases break down fats. Proteases, like trypsin and pepsin, break down proteins.

Other enzymes are found naturally in plant foods, including bromelain in pineapple and papain in papaya. Plant enzymes are typically destroyed, however, during cooking and processing. (That’s why, for example, only canned pineapple works in Jell-O; if you add fresh pineapple, the enzymes prevent it from gelling.) Proponents of enzyme supplements make a big deal of this to drive home the point that we’re not getting all the enzymes our ancestors did when processed foods weren’t pervasive.

There’s little question digestive enzymes are helpful for people with conditions like cystic fibrosis, chronic pancreatitis and lactose intolerance. But should the rest of us-plagued perhaps by simple indigestion-turn to enzyme supplements? That depends on who you ask. Enzyme proponents argue yes, because so many foods today are heavily processed, while mainstream medicine contends that healthy bodies manufacture all we need. And it’s not at all clear that plant enzymes can significantly aid human digestion.

Still, some gastroenterologists say it’s possible enzyme supplements could be of benefit at times, even though there are no studies to prove this. The bottom line, all seem to agree, is that they’re not harmful for healthy people. There have been reports of colon damage in cystic fibrosis patients taking extremely large doses.

EN certainly does not recommend turning to supplemental enzymes in an attempt to relieve chronic gastrointestinal distress, without first having a thorough checkup to rule out any medical conditions. And consider that a probiotic like acidophilus (see EN, March 1999) or stomach-soothing herbal remedies like chamomile, fennel or ginger might do more good.

If you have frequent indigestion, perhaps you don’t need enzymes but better eating habits. Before turning to supplements, why not try the following tips that will aid good digestion and good nutrition:

  • Include more raw fruits and vegetables in your diet, including freshly squeezed juice.

  • Eat fresh pineapple after meals for a natural source of bromelain.

  • Chew food thoroughly to promote saliva, which contains enzymes that begin the digestive process.

  • Eat slowly to minimize the amount of air you take in.

  • Don’t overeat or lie down within an hour of eating.

  • Lose weight if overweight.

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