Advocates say that enzyme supplements can cure an astonishing array of maladies. Acne, arthritis, AIDS, allergies, bronchitis, cataracts, colds, sciatica, and shingles are only a few of the problems that digestive enzymes are said to relieve. Fever, headaches, swelling, and pain can also be banished, along with myasthenia gravis, pancreatitis, lung and tooth infections, bone fractures, kidney disease, liver disorders, and general weakness. According to enthusiasts, even multiple sclerosis, cancer, and aging will succumb to regular enzyme supplementation.
Is there any truth to these claims? The good news is that the supplements can indeed be helpful–if you have one of the rare conditions that cause enzyme deficiency (cystic fibrosis, Gaucher’s disease, and celiac disease are the leading culprits). Certain enzymes can also help people with specific digestive problems such as lactose intolerance, bloating, and gas. For the rest of us, however, the supplements are thought to be completely unnecessary and are said to have no scientifically validated effect.
How the Treatments Are Done
For genuine cases of enzyme deficiency, verified by blood tests and assessment of digestive status, doctors prescribe supplements such as Donnazyme, Cotazyme, Creon, Pancrease, Ultrase, and Zymase. For people with lactose intolerance, there’s the over-the-counter remedy Lactaid. And for those troubled by chronic gas, there’s a product called Beano.
Enzyme products promoted for other disorders are typically sold as dietary supplements, a category that’s not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s illegal to claim that these products can cure any specific disease, and any such claims can be considered bogus.
What Treatment Hopes to Accomplish
Enzymes are catalysts for virtually every biological and chemical reaction in the body, and digestive enzymes are crucial for the breakdown of food into nutrients the body can absorb. Without sufficient digestive enzymes, the fat, starch, and sugar that we eat can’t be fully digested, and this, in turn, can disrupt absorption of minerals and fat-soluble vitamins.
Various digestive enzymes are produced at different points along the digestive tract, ranging from the salivary glands to the small intestine. Other digestive enzymes, including several of the most important, are produced in the pancreas. If the pancreas is chronically infected or damaged by a disease such as cystic fibrosis, the result is severe malabsorption, diarrhea, and malnutrition. In such cases, enzyme supplements can be a life-saver.
Likewise, if the small intestine fails to produce enough of the digestive enzyme lactase, the milk sugar called lactose will move down the intestinal tract unabsorbed, causing gas, bloating and diarrhea. A shortage of the enzyme alpha galactosidase can also have unpleasant consequences, leading to incomplete digestion of certain carbohydrates in foods such as beans and cabbage, and thus causing gas.
“Enzyme therapy” does not, however, concern itself with these specific deficiencies. Instead, it seeks to maintain peak digestion by bolstering the body’s natural enzymes with ample supplements from other sources. This is thought to reduce the body’s workload, allowing the immune system to flourish and ridding the system of toxic, only partially digested nutrients.
Enzyme advocates are particularly worried about absorption of partially digested protein molecules into the bloodstream, where they can be mistaken as foreign invaders and attacked by the immune system. The resulting circulating immune complexes (CIC’s) can, they say, put stress on the immune system, accumulate in the tissues, and provoke inflammation, arthritis, allergies, ulcers, sciatica and a variety of pains.
How is it that we supposedly lack sufficient enzymes to prevent these dire consequences? Many proponents of enzyme therapy blame it on our preference for cooked food. At the high temperatures used in food preparation, the destruction of enzymes, minerals, and vitamins is a well-accepted fact. Faced with a shortage of these dietary enzymes, the theory goes, the body’s digestive system is forced to compensate by increasing its own enzyme production. Advocates of enzyme therapy say a shortfall remains. Mainstream scientists respond that the supply is more than sufficient.
Who Should Avoid This Therapy?
According to virtually all medical experts, unless you’ve been diagnosed with a clear-cut deficiency, enzyme supplements are a waste of money. Diabetics in particular should be wary of high-enzyme diets that may conflict with the carefully balanced menus they need to keep their blood-sugar levels under control.
What Side Effects May Occur?
High doses of pancreatic enzymes can interfere with kidney function. Liver disorders and digestive problems are also possibilities. Lung problems and immune disorders could be aggravated as well; and diabetics may experience wide variations in blood sugar levels.
How to Choose a Therapist
Among the ranks of enzyme therapists you’ll find osteopaths, chiropractors, and physicians. When selecting a practitioner, it’s wise to go for the maximum amount of medical training and experience.
When Should Treatment Stop?
If your symptoms persist, seek another form of therapy without delay.
See a Conventional Doctor If…
Clinical research suggests that, for most problems, your odds of success with enzyme therapy are low, while another, more tightly targeted form of treatment might quickly remedy the problem. Certainly for any sort of serious illness, substituting enzyme therapy for standard treatment could be a serious mistake. Try to exhaust all your mainstream medical options before turning to enzymes.
Be especially wary of experimental cancer treatments with pancreatic enzymes and vitamins A and C. Although these treatments are supposed to mobilize the immune system and stimulate tumor necrosis factor, there are no scientific studies supporting such claims. Be sure to get a second opinion if anyone proposes this or similar forms of therapy.