This article provides an overview of digestive enzymes (aka gluten pills) used to help people with gluten disorders, including celiac disease, gluten intolerance or gluten sensitivity. This article is for informational purposes and not a substitute for medical advice. This post contains affiliate links. Please see my disclosures and disclaimers.
If you’ve been in the gluten-free community long enough, chances are you’ve heard of digestive enzymes for gluten (known as glutenases or gluten pills) that are marketed as dietary supplements and claim to help people more easily and quickly digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats.
If you’re one of the three million people with celiac disease, or 18 million people with gluten sensitivity in the U.S., you’re probably intrigued by the potential of these so-called magical supplements.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to have access to a magical pill that allows you to eat a piece of gluten-y bread again?
How amazing would it feel to not have to worry about getting glutened every time you eat out?
And what a relief it would be to not have to be that person whose meal requires “special” attention?
While the dream is real, the reality is that digestive enzymes may not live up to such hype, and they certainly don’t give a person permission to eat wheat again.
This article will explain how digestive enzymes work, what they are, and how they may benefit — or hurt — someone who is challenged by gluten.
What are Digestive Enzymes and How Do They Work?
Before we get into how gluten digestive enzymes work, I’d like to give you a primer on digestive enzymes in general.
Digestive enzymes are chemicals found in both saliva and in digestive system organs.
Your body naturally makes these digestive enzymes to aid in the breakdown of the proteins, carbohydrates and fats from the food you eat.
Through both the chemical process of digestion (digestive enzymes) and the mechanical breakdown of food (chewing), your body effectively breaks down food into small, digestible molecules.
These small molecules are easily absorbed and essential to fueling every cell in your body.
Your body naturally produces several types of digestive enzymes, including:
- Amylase. This enzyme is mainly produced by saliva and helps to break down carbohydrates and starches.
- Maltase. Maltase is produced by the small intestine and aids in the breakdown of sugar (maltose and glucose), sugars your body uses for energy.
- Lactase. This enzyme breaks down sugar found in milk (lactose).
- Lipase. Lipase is produced in the pancreas and aids in the breakdown of fats.
- Protease. This is an important enzyme produced in your stomach and pancreas and is essential for breaking down proteins. Remember, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. There are several types of protease, including pepsin, which is secreted by the stomach, and trypsin, which is secreted by the pancreas.
- Sucrase. This enzyme is found along the intestinal villi (the villi are the hair-like follicles that surround the small intestine and are typically damaged/flattened in people with celiac disease). Sucrase is used to break down sucrose into simple sugars (fructose and glucose), making them more easily absorbed by the body.
Some people do not produce a sufficient amount of digestive enzymes due to genetics, injury or illness (including celiac disease).
When the body doesn’t produce enough digestive juice, a person might experience poor digestion and a slew of annoying and sometimes painful gastrointestinal symptoms such as gas, diarrhea, stomachaches, and more.
Some digestive disorders, for example, even inhibit the body’s ability to naturally produce these enzymes. For example, a person with a lactose intolerance doesn’t produce enough lactase. This person isn’t able to digest or absorb dairy products and often experiences annoying stomach issues.
There are many foods that contain digestive enzymes that can aid in digestion without any pill supplementation. These foods include but are not limited to the following:
- Honey (raw)
- Fermented foods (i.e. sauerkraut, kefir)
In addition to eating foods high in digestive enzymes, many people choose to take a digestive supplement, typically found in the form of a pill, to help them digest gluten.
Ed Note: Please discuss digestive enzyme supplements with your doctor before taking one. Digestive enzymes are not intended as a treatment for celiac disease or gluten sensitivity and should be taken in conjunction with a strict gluten-free diet for those on the gluten spectrum.
What You Need to Know about Gluten Digestive Enzymes
Dr. Tom O’Bryan, the leading gluten sensitivity doctor in the world, says no enzyme produced by the body’s digestive tract is “capable of breaking down gluten.” This is science, he adds, and it’s no secret that gluten causes inflammation in all who eat it.
Researchers have furthered this premise by testing five commercially available gluten digestive enzyme supplements and concluded that “digestive enzyme supplements are ineffective in degrading immunogenic gluten epitopes.”
While the research isn’t clear — nor fully supportive — that gluten digestive enzymes work, it doesn’t negate the hundreds of testimonials on Amazon from people saying digestive enzymes have helped them better tolerate gluten.
The truth is, digestive enzymes can make people feel better after eating gluten because they aid in the overall digestion of food.
Digestive enzymes contain a combination of enzymes – and sometimes probiotics – that help breakdown food and provide digestion relief.
Remember, feeling better does not mean damage isn’t being done. In fact, if someone takes a gluten digestive enzyme and then purposefully eats a slice of wheat bread, they are triggering an autoimmune attack (celiac) or inflammatory fire (gluten sensitivity) in their bodies. External symptoms (i.e. bloating, gas, diarrhea) are not foolproof measures nor indicators of intestinal damage.
Are Gluten Digestive Enzymes Safe?
With the popularity of gluten digestive enzymes, many consumers wonder if these little gluten pills are safe.
Firstly, it’s important to evaluate all claims, conduct due diligence, and talk to a doctor before taking any supplements. It’s also important to note that claims made by digestive enzyme supplement companies are not evaluated nor regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (USDA).
Furthermore, while digestive enzymes are known to aid in digestion, someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should take them only in conjunction with a strict gluten-free diet.
The problem is that many gluten digestive enzyme claims give over mixed messages, giving people false hope and security into thinking they are protected when eating gluten when they are not.
If someone with celiac disease eats gluten, regardless if they take a digestive enzyme, they will experience inflammation and the body will go into attack mode (celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue when gluten is present). Continued exposure to gluten often means a higher risk of getting additional autoimmune diseases and puts one at higher risk for life-threatening disorders like cancer.
On top of it all, some experts suggest that taking digestive enzymes cause the body to become dependent on them for proper digestion. Why? A digestive enzyme tricks the digestive system into thinking it’s producing plenty of digestive juice when it is not. Over time it may stop naturally producing the enzymes, potentially making digestion worse and resulting in a dependency on digestive enzymes. There is no research to back up this claim, however.
When Is OK to Take a Gluten Digestive Enzyme?
While a gluten digestive enzyme should never be taken as permission to eat gluten, if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there are times when it may be helpful to pop such a pill to ease your symptoms.
For example, most people in the gluten-challenged community will tell you that eating out can feel like a game of Russian Roulette. Is the dish placed before you really gluten free or does it contain bits of gluten cross contamination?
In such cases where you might be wary of the food you’re eating, taking a gluten digestive enzyme beforehand may be helpful. Again, gluten digestive enzymes should only be used in times when you might be accidentally glutened or when you inadvertently consume a small amount of gluten via cross contamination.
In other words, taking a gluten digestive enzyme before enjoying a restaurant meal is like having an insurance policy. Most people have homeowners insurance not because they plan to burn down their house, but just in case there is a fire. The same is true with a gluten digestive enzyme. Gluten-challenged people take it not as permission to eat gluten; rather they take it in case hidden gluten sneaks into their food.
Brands of Digestive Enzymes for Gluten
There are many brands of gluten digestive enzymes on the market today, and each brand’s claims should be carefully evaluated by consumers.
GlutenEase is a digestive enzyme supplement that contains amylase, protease, and Dipeptidyl Peptidase IV (DDP-IV), which is a form of protease that breaks down gluten and aids in the digestion of proteins.
The manufacturer of GlutenEase says on its website, “DPP-IV is intended for those sensitive to gluten who are already following a gluten-free diet but may need help breaking down gluten proteins that are unintentionally ingested.” You can purchase GlutenEase on Amazon.
Gluten Cutter is promoted as a digestive enzyme supplement that aids in the breakdown of gluten found in wheat and assists in the breakdown of hard-to-digest foods. You can purchase Gluten Cutter on Amazon.
Gluten Away is one of the pricier digestive enzyme options because it also contains a blend of probiotics in addition to digestive enzymes. If you already take a probiotic, you may want to consider using a different brand of digestive enzymes. You can purchase Gluten Away on Amazon.
Wheat Rescue is a combination of digestive enzymes and probiotics developed by Dr. Tom O’Bryan and his team. Dr. Tom is an expert on gluten sensitivity, author of The Autoimmune Fix, and the foreword writer of my book, Dear Gluten, It’s Not Me, It’s You.
Wheat Rescue contains DPP-IV and Tolerase G, which are enzymes that assist in the breakdown of glutenin and gliadin proteins, the building blocks of gluten. It also includes a combination of probiotic spores and yeast that support intestinal health and barrier function. You can purchase Wheat Rescue from Dr. Tom’s website.
Bottom Line on Digestive Enzymes
A digestive enzyme for gluten isn’t a cure-all treatment that enables someone with a gluten disorder to throw caution to the wind and eat gluten again. Rather, such enzymes are used in adjunct with the gluten-free diet, particularly before eating out and during times when you might be accidentally glutened or affected by cross contamination.
Remember, a strict gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. While digestive enzymes may help you manage symptoms associated with eating gluten, they only “mask” your symptoms; they do not address the underlying or root cause and they certainly don’t mitigate internal damage.
The only way to heal from a gluten disorder is to avoid gluten at all times. A digestive enzyme, for all intents and purposes, can help only in times when sneaky bits of hidden gluten make their way into your food. It is not a treatment for a gluten disorder, rather it’s a symptom reliever. Evaluate claims carefully and buyer beware.
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