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Many people are turning to over-the-counter enzyme supplements to aid their digestive system. The benefits and disadvantages of such supplementation are not always known to the consumers.

Available only by prescription in the past, enzyme supplements are easy to obtain as over-the-counter supplements these days.  Although in a number of conditions the supplements can provide clear benefits, it appears that they are often used by relatively healthy people who wish to address small concerns such as symptoms of indigestion and bloating.

Just because something is available does not necessarily mean that it is completely safe.

Those considering to use these supplements should weigh the pros and cons before buying them. You need to know what types of enzymes are in the digestive system, how a particular supplement may benefit you and what are the potential downsides of supplementation. This ensures that you make the right decision for your health.

Learning About Over-the-Counter Digestive Enzyme Supplements

Digestive enzyme supplements come from a variety of sources including various animals, plants or fungi.

Some of the most popular over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements include:

Bromelain is derived from pineapple pulp and stem and contains several different enzyme. In digestion, it helps to break down proteins. It may also help to alleviate inflammation associated with infection or injury and it may aid in reducing the symptoms of indigestion. As of today, the anti-inflammatory effects of this supplement are being studied to determine how helpful it is in alleviating the arthritis pain. It is established that this enzyme promotes healthy digestion of proteins and this is what most people take it for. It is usually taken with meals, specifically those high in protein.

Lipase aids in the absorption and digestion of fat. Supplements with this enzyme come from pigs, cows, plants and fungi. Lipase supplements also usually include other digestive enzymes, such as lactase, amylase and protease. This enzyme is said to be beneficial in alleviating bloating and gas. Some people have lipase deficiency, and the supplement can be helpful in these cases but must be carefully dosed to alleviate the deficiency. Lipase supplements may be considered for Crohn's disease, celiac disease and cystic fibrosis. Ideally, a lipase supplement is taken 30 minutes before eating.

Papain comes from papaya fruit and is thought to help digest proteins and fats.

While research is limited, it is thought that a papain supplement may be helpful for arthritis, injury recovery, certain autoimmune diseases, food allergies and shingles.

It is important to not take high doses because it can injure the throat. Those allergic to figs, kiwi and papaya should avoid this supplement.

Lactase comes from the small intestine and helps to digest a dairy product sugar known as lactose. Someone is considered to be lactose intolerant when they have low levels of this enzyme. Those with lactose intolerance cannot eat most dairy products without experiencing uncomfortable digestive symptoms, such as bloating, diarrhea and stomach cramping. Some people can take a lactase supplement before they drink milk or eat dairy products and avoid the symptoms. In some cases, there are lactase enzymes that people can add to milk that allows them to drink it without any lactose intolerance symptoms.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Jithinraj Edakkanambeth Varayil, Brent A. Bauer, Ryan T. Hurt (2014) Over-the-Counter Enzyme Supplements: What a Clinician Needs to Know. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 89, 1307-1312’ Roxas, M. (2008) The Role of Enzyme Supplementation in Digestive Disorders. Alternative Medicine Review 13:307-313
  • Taussig SJ, Batkin S. (1988) Bromelain, the enzyme complex of pineapple (Ananas comosus) and its clinical application. An update. J Ethnopharmacol 22, 191-203
  • Klein G, Kullich W, Schnitker J, et al. (2006) Efficacy and tolerance of an oral enzyme combination in painful osteoarthritis of the hip. A double-blind, randomised study comparing oral enzymes with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Clin Exp Rheumatol 24, 25-30.
  • Photo courtesy of SuperFantastic by Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/superfantastic/2003694270
  • Photo courtesy of Rebecca Siegel by Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/grongar/3862869698

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