Can Digestive Enzymes Help with Gluten Intolerance?

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    Gluten intolerance and dairy intolerance are common digestive problems. Can digestive enzyme supplements help solve them? Read on to learn more.

    Best digestive enzymes for gluten intolerance

    Naturally occurring digestive enzymes are a vitally important part of your digestive system. They help your body break down the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins from foods, thus allowing your body to absorb the nutrients it needs.

    In individuals with gluten intolerance, the body's ability to digest gluten is compromised, as the small intestine may lack sufficient quantities of specific enzymes. As a result, gluten proteins remain undigested and can trigger a cascade of unwanted symptoms.

    Fortunately, those who suffer from gluten intolerance may find relief by supplementing with digestive enzymes. Let’s take a look at the three best.

    1. Amylase

    Amylase is one of the most important digestive enzymes for individuals with gluten intolerance, as it is necessary for breaking down starches. Amylase is secreted by the salivary glands and pancreas and is responsible for digesting carbohydrates – or starches – into simple sugar molecules.

    In those with gluten intolerance, ensuring proper carbohydrate digestion is essential, as gluten-containing grains often contain substantial amounts of starch. When there is a deficiency of amylase, individuals may experience gastrointestinal issues due to the incomplete breakdown of carbohydrates.

    2. Lipase

    Lipase is an enzyme secreted from the pancreas that is responsible for breaking down lipids, fats, and triglycerides into free fatty acids. The breakdown of these fats into simpler molecules is necessary, as it allows the small intestine to better absorb these nutrients.

    In the context of gluten intolerance, proper lipid digestion is important, as individuals often experience damage to the intestinal lining, affecting regular nutrient absorption. When there is an insufficient amount of lipase, not only does it lead to potential gastrointestinal problems, but it can also result in deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K.

    3. Protease

    Proteases are a group of enzymes responsible for digesting proteins. Pepsin is the main protease of the group and is made in the stomach. But several factors can decrease how well the body produces pepsin. For example, aging and the frequent use of over-the-counter antacids are the most common factors. This is because hydrochloric acid from the stomach is necessary to activate pepsin.

    As a consequence, lower pepsin in the stomach makes it harder to digest and metabolize proteins and minerals from foods and/or supplements.

    In the small intestine, protein digestion continues with the aid of pancreatic enzymes, including trypsin, chymotrypsin, elastase, and carboxypeptidase. These enzymes ensure the complete breakdown of proteins into amino acids, facilitating their absorption into the bloodstream. Moreover, protease serves an additional function of protecting the intestines from harmful microorganisms like yeast and protozoa.

    Since gluten is a protein, it can be particularly challenging for individuals with gluten sensitivities to digest. Therefore, the addition of a protease enzyme, which helps break down proteins, may be especially helpful for those with gluten sensitivities.

    What is gluten intolerance?

    Gluten intolerance is surprisingly common and is marked by negative physiological reactions to gluten. When you have a gluten intolerance, your body can’t digest gluten, which is a protein. If you have a gluten intolerance, you may be experiencing one of three different medical conditions: celiac disease, wheat allergy, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). With a wheat allergy or celiac disease, then you should not consume gluten at all. However, if you have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it is possible that enzymes can help.

    For those who are gluten intolerant, the root of the problem is that gluten proteins are highly resistant to the process by which protease breaks down proteins. Since gluten isn’t getting broken down properly, pathogenic peptides emerge in the body, which then causes celiac disease or an allergic reaction in genetically predisposed people.

    Gluten intolerance can be highly frustrating and inconvenient since gluten is present in so many popular foods. It’s found in wheat, barley, and rye. Wheat is an ingredient in bread, pasta, cereal, and more; it’s also common in soups and salad dressings. Barley is often found in beer and foods that contain malt. Rye is found in rye bread, rye beer, and some cereals.

    For some, the only way to manage their gluten intolerance is to adhere to a gluten-free diet. Luckily there are several gluten-free options available such as cassava, rice, nut, and legume-based products. However, for others with gluten sensitivity, it’s possible that replacement digestive enzymes can help ease symptoms.

    Can digestive enzymes really help?

    Yes, digestive enzymes can help – but there’s a catch. A gluten digestive enzyme shouldn’t be taken as blanket permission to eat gluten, especially if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. People who experience either of these conditions should ideally take digestive enzyme supplements in conjunction with a gluten-free diet. No enzyme replacement supplements can help those with celiac safely consume gluten.

    Still, there are times when taking a digestive enzyme supplement can help ease symptoms related to gluten intolerance. Think of it in the way you’d think about an insurance policy. If you’re one of the many people in the gluten-challenged community, you can probably feel as though dining out is a roll of the dice. The risk of gluten cross-contamination is always present. So, taking a gluten digestive enzyme can help you avoid some of the nastier symptoms of gluten intolerance, in the unfortunate event that you accidentally end up consuming some gluten.

    How digestive enzymes can help with accidental gluten ingestion

    Digestive enzymes have shown potential in aiding with accidental gluten ingestion, providing some relief to individuals with gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Gluten and gliadin are proteins found in wheat, and our natural digestive enzymes can only partly break them down. However, proteolytic enzymes from papaya have shown the ability to break down gluten more effectively by targeting specific parts of the gluten protein and reducing its concentration. But, this process has only been studied during food processing, not in the human digestive tract. Foods processed in this way are still not cleared for those with Celiac disease or wheat/gluten allergies because we're not sure how much gluten actually gets broken down. However, those with gluten intolerance or sensitivity might get some benefit. More research is needed in human trials before this can be used as a reliable method of managing accidental gluten ingestion.

    Other research also concludes that some enzymes may help minimize the impacts of accidental gluten ingestion for those who are strictly gluten-free, but that they can’t be used to initiate a gluten-containing diet and minimize the impact. Most research has been done in vitro, and until human trials are done, evidence is inconclusive. People with Celiac can still experience harmful effects in the duodenum from accidental ingestion even if using these products.

    What are digestive enzyme supplements?

    Digestive enzyme supplements are designed to enhance natural enzymes and to perform the same functions: breaking down the carbohydrates, fats, and proteins from the foods you consume, thus allowing your body to absorb the nutrients it needs. These replacement enzymes, therefore, can help alleviate the digestive problems related to poor absorption, such as gas, bloating, cramping, or diarrhea.

    Since they’re designed to imitate natural pancreatic enzymes, it’s best to take these supplements just before a meal. This ensures that they’re doing their job right as food is making its way into your stomach and small intestine. If you’re eating an especially big meal, or if you’re a particularly slow eater, you may want to consider breaking up the dose – perhaps taking half at the start of the meal and taking the rest once you’re halfway through the meal.

    What’s most important, though, is that you take the supplement with a meal. Otherwise, the replacement enzyme will be of little to no use. As always, you should talk to a medical professional before adding a new supplement to your routine.

    Natural food sources of digestive enzymes

    Aside from supplements, some natural food sources provide digestive enzymes. Here’s a list of some of the most well-known:

    • Papaya (papain): Supports all food digestion; most research has been done on supplements, not whole food consumption
    • Pineapple (bromelain): Supports protein digestion
    • Kiwi (actinidin): Supports protein digestion
    • Oats (lipase): Supports fat digestion
    • Honey (amylase): Supports sugar digestion
    • Sourdough bread and other fermented foods: Contain lactic acid, which supports gluten breakdown
    • Fermented peas/legumes: Contain microbial protease, which could support protein breakdown

    Other benefits of digestive enzymes

    Another fascinating benefit of digestive enzymes is that they can help decrease lactose sensitivity for people who are lactose intolerant. Studies show that lactase enzyme supplementation, particularly right before meals, can reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance and help to break down lactose. Studies have also shown that participants who added lactase to milk prior to consumption saw a marked decrease in the gastrointestinal symptoms associated with lactose intolerance. These participants reported healthier digestion and fewer symptoms.

    Lactase enzymes are available over-the-counter in pill or capsule form. Of course, you should talk to a qualified medical professional before adding a lactase supplement to your routine.

    Care/of’s Digestive Enzymes supplement is made with a blend of enzymes that break down dairy, gluten, fiber, and more. Be sure to always read the supplement facts label before ingesting any supplements.

    The bottom line

    Naturally occurring digestive enzymes are an important part of your digestive system, helping you break down the food you eat and allowing your body to absorb the nutrients it needs. Without these enzymes, many of your food’s nutrients would go to waste. When your naturally occurring enzymes aren’t functioning properly, digestive enzyme supplements can help.

    Two common digestive problems are gluten intolerance and dairy intolerance. When it comes to gluten intolerance, a replacement enzyme can be treated like an insurance policy: You can take it before a meal just in case your food has been cross-contaminated with gluten. However, such a replacement enzyme shouldn’t be considered a free pass for eating gluten.

    When it comes to dairy intolerance, adding a lactase supplement to your milk or otherwise consuming lactase before a meal can help limit the gastrointestinal symptoms associated with this intolerance.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Jordana Tobelem, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Jordana Tobelem is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys helping others become the best versions of themselves through proper nutrition education. Jordana is passionate about promoting lifestyle changes through nutrition, physical activity, and behavior to create a superior quality of life. She uses her experience in the clinical field of dietetics to provide consulting services to an array of healthcare brands and companies. Jordana loves finding the most current research in nutrition to create meaningful content to share with her clients. Jordana has been a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics since 2018 and also holds certifications in both Personal Training and Health Coaching.