science

Can Digestive Enzymes Help Dairy and Gluten Intolerance?

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

7 min read

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

What is a digestive enzyme?

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. If you didn’t have these enzymes, many of the nutrients in your food would go to waste.

When everything is functioning properly, your body makes these enzymes in the digestive system, including your stomach, your mouth, and your small intestine – with the biggest share of the work happening in the pancreas. The three main types of digestive enzymes are:

  • Amylase. This enzyme is there to break carbohydrates – or starches – into sugar molecules. If you don’t have enough amylase, you may experience some gastrointestinal problems.
  • Lipase. This enzyme works with liver bile to break down fats. Insufficient lipase is also associated with deficiencies in the fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K.
  • If you don’t have enough lipase, you’ll be lacking in fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K.
  • Protease. This enzyme is there to break proteins down into amino amino acids, while also keeping bacteria, yeast, and protozoa out of the intestines. A protease shortage can lead to problems for your intestines.

When the production of your digestive enzymes is interfered with, you may develop some frustrating symptoms. A lack of digestive enzymes can lead to digestive issues and even malnutrition. You may even experience symptoms such as bloating, cramping, gassiness, and diarrhea.

In such situations, you may want to consider taking a digestive enzyme supplement before your meals. Some digestive enzyme supplements are available over-the-counter and some are available via a doctor’s prescription.

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 – nutrients that pass through the wall of the small intestine and make their way into your bloodstream. These replacement enzymes, therefore, can help alleviate the digestive problems related to poor absorption, such as gas and bloating.

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.

Now, let’s turn our attention to two of the most common digestive issues people face: gluten intolerance and dairy intolerance. Can digestive enzyme supplements be part of the solution?

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 the gluten 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 cause 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. If you have a gluten intolerance, that can be a problem, since wheat, barley, and rye are found in many foods. 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 a 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.

What is a dairy intolerance?

Dairy intolerance – also known as lactose intolerance – is another common problem, afflicting between 30 and 50 million Americans. The problem is especially common for those with Asian, African, and Hispanic ancestry. It’s marked by the inability of your digestive enzymes to break down a natural sugar called lactose. Lactose is found in dairy products, including milk and yogurt.

Lactose intolerance occurs when your small intestine fails to make enough of the enzyme lactase to be able to break down the lactose. As a result, the lactose that hasn’t been digested ends up moving into the large intestine. The bacteria in your large intestine then interact with the undigested lactose, which leads to the most common symptoms of lactose intolerance: bloating, gas and diarrhea.

So, if you’re lactose intolerant, you might start to notice these pesky gastrointestinal problems within a half-hour to two hours after consuming dairy products. To counter this problem, you can either avoid dairy altogether, or take supplements that contain the lactase enzyme.

Can digestive enzymes really help?

Yes, digestive enzymes can actually 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 – nicknamed “The Meal Buddy” – is made with a blend of enzymes that break down dairy, gluten, fiber, and more.

Key takeaways

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; if it has, the supplement may help limit symptoms. 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.

Care/of offers a top-notch digestive enzyme supplement, made with a blend of enzymes to help break down dairy, gluten, fiber, and more.

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