Enzymes—an exciting category given its current growth and potential. While retail and research focus is on newly elucidated effects of enzymes on systemic health, such as the immune and cardiovascular systems, the humble workhorse function of enzymes in the digestive system is highly noteworthy. Still the biggest market for these products, digestive enzymes fill a need for the ever-growing segment of the population managing food sensitivities and intolerances.
How Enzymes Work
Enzymes are large proteins naturally produced by the body. All enzymes serve the same function: to help cause chemical reactions in the body. Of the billions of reactions that make our body function each day (called metabolism), most require a “push" in order to happen. While this sounds a bit inefficient, it is exactly the opposite. Each of these reactions requires energy and needs to happen in the right place at the right time. This would be hard to regulate and manage if it were left to randomness. Enzymes are the body’s way of providing a facilitator that seeks out the molecule at the right time, and helps it reduce the energy needed to react. This process is both energy and time efficient.
More than 2,000 different kinds of enzymes are known, each specifically tailored to one kind of reaction. Various types of cells only manufacture the specific enzymes they need. Therefore, it follows that digestive enzymes are manufactured and sent to work when and where they are needed: in the stomach and intestines after a meal. What kind of reactions are needed there? The kind that break down food into its smallest constituent parts so the body can utilize them for nourishment.
When Enzymes Fall Short
There are a number of reasons that this process can fall short of its intended outcome. First, individuals can have genetic abnormalities whereby their bodies have lost the ability to produce certain enzymes. For example, a person can be unable to make the enzyme lactase, which helps to break down the sugars in milk; thus the lactose-intolerant individual. Diseases can also lower the body’s production of enzymes, such as lowered levels of the enzyme lipase (which breaks down fats), which can occur in pancreatitis, Crohn’s disease, gastric bypass or pancreatic cancer. Others simply suffer from insufficient levels of certain enzymes, such as those who experience bloating and gas after eating fruits, vegetables, beans or whole grains. These people are deficient in alpha-galactosidase, which helps to digest complex carbs.
In all of these cases, supplementation with enzymes can bring digestion back to comfortable levels, decreasing chronic side effects and increasing the nourishment that can be derived from foods.
Clinical research on the action of digestive support is quite good for enzymes such as α-galactosidase, lactase, amylase (digests starch), lipase (digests fats), bromelain (digests proteins) and dipeptidyl peptidase (which digests gluten). In addition, the benefit of digestive enzymes for those with gastrointestinal (GI)-related diseases, such as celiac, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and pancreatitis, is well known. New research has uncovered additional populations where it was never understood that poor digestion plays a role. For example, in those with autism spectrum disorder, emerging research is exploring a connection between classic symptoms and the prevalence of abnormal gut bacteria, leaky gut syndrome and sulfur metabolism deficiencies (Med Hypotheses. 2013;80(3):264-70), as well as an inability to digest milk proteins (casein) and wheat gluten (Med Hypotheses. 2002;58(5):422-8). An initial study has shown enzyme supplementation produces an improvement in symptoms related to the condition, such as socialization, hyperactivity and comprehension, as well as more than a 50-percent improvement in digestion after three weeks of supplement use.
Because the biology is straightforward, and the clinical evidence is strong for many enzymes, telling the story of enzymes and designing compliant structure/function claims is relatively easy compared to other types of products. Well-supported phrases include: “for children and adults experiencing multiple food intolerances," “an effective way to support digestion," “promotes intestinal well-being," and “optimizes digestion." Of course, the use of any of these phrases must be properly evaluated in context. When it comes to highlighting the connection of enzyme applications to specific conditions, it is important to stay within structure/function claim guidelines and not discuss effects on that condition. For example, “beneficial for those with trouble digesting fats," is appropriate, rather than discussing benefits for conditions that cause trouble with digesting fats. As existing and new research helps illuminate the further benefits and applications of enzymes for digestion, third-party literature is an effective way to disseminate information without running into compliance issues.
As a category poised for growth, it will be exciting to see what new research can do to accelerate our understanding of the benefits of enzymes, and how that can improve quality of life for so many individuals.
For more information on enzymes and other ingredients for digestion, visit INSIDER's Digestive Health Content Library.
Risa Schulman, Ph.D., is a functional food and dietary supplement expert, professional speaker and writer. She is president of Tap~Root (tap-root.biz), a consulting company focusing on health claim substantiation, product development and business strategy.