Enzyme Supplements: Who Needs Them Most?

Enzyme supplements sold in health food stores and through online retailers claim to help ease digestion and fight disease. Here's what you need to know.

In the body, the pancreas produces digestive enzymes that break down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates from food into smaller parts that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Protease is the enzyme that breaks protein down into individual amino acids. Lipase breaks down lipids, or fats, into different types of fatty acids. Amylase breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars that are further broken down into glucose.  Other digestive enzymes are produced both in the pancreas and in other parts of the body.

A person who develops pancreatic disease, such as chronic pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer, cannot produce a sufficient amount of enzymes to ensure the breakdown of major nutrients, particularly fats. Since the liver and gastrointestinal tract produce enzymes and other substances necessary for normal pancreatic enzyme activity, any disease in these organs can also interfere with enzyme activity. When enzyme production or activity is blocked, serious side effects of occur due to poor digestion of foods and absorption of nutrients. These side effects include severe pain, diarrhea and malnutrition.

Health food stores, some pharmacies and online retailers sell enzyme supplements that purportedly help aid digestion. Some are derived from foods that contain their own natural enzymes, such as papain, which comes from papaya and bromelein, from pineapple. Others are derived from animal sources. The problem with all enzymes made outside of the human body, whether you get them from supplements or directly from foods, is that they are proteins. When consumed, they are digested by gastric acid in the stomach, just like any other protein. The digestive process renders the proteins inactive, so they cannot help digest other foods.

For serious medical disorders that prevent digestive enzymes from doing their jobs, doctors prescribe specially formulated enzyme supplements that can help with the digestive process without being digested themselves. With the exception of lactase, an enzyme that helps digest lactose, or milk sugar, and is useful for people with lactose intolerance who want to drink milk and eat dairy products, there appears to be no reason for anyone to take enzyme supplements that are available over the counter.

Three other enzymes produced by the body-superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase-act as antioxidants, which means they attack substances known as free radicals that oxidize, or damage, cells throughout the body. Since damaged body cells lead to disease, antioxidants are very important to health. Antioxidant enzymes are also sold in the form of dietary supplements. Like digestive enzymes, however, these supplements are digested in the stomach and intestine, and broken down into smaller parts so they can be absorped into the body. Once they are broken down into smaller parts, the enzymes have no antioxidant power so, for all intents and purposes, these supplements are useless.


Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "Pancreatic and Biliary Diseases." 2010. Web. 21 July 2010.

Food and Drug Administration. "Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency Drug Products." Federal Register: April 28, 2004. Vol. 69; No. 82; 23409-23414

Keith, Robert E., "Antioxidants and Health." Auburn University/Alabama Cooperative Extension. Pub. HE-0778. Oct 1999. Web. 21 July 2010.