Can Digestive Enzymes Save You From Gluten Exposure?

woman taking digestive enzyme
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None of the over-the-counter products on the market right now have been proven to protect you from a nasty glutening if you accidentally or purposely ingest gluten, regardless of whether you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

However, various researchers are investigating different forms of digestive enzymes as potential drug treatments for celiac disease, so it's possible we might eventually see a prescription product or even an over-the-counter product that uses these enzymes to break down gluten enough so that it doesn't affect you (or at least not as badly).

Some OTC Digestive Enzyme Products Hail From Autism Market

Over the past couple of years, several products have been marketed as over-the-counter supplements that purport to allow people who get symptoms from gluten exposure to eat gluten — or at least foods that are slightly cross-contaminated with gluten — without getting their usual array of symptoms.

Initially, these enzymes were marketed mainly to the autism community, where some parents use the gluten-free casein-free (GFCF) diet to treat their autistic children.

However, as awareness of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity has grown, sparking much greater interest in the gluten-free diet, these manufacturers began targeting the celiac/gluten sensitivity market along with the GFCF diet market.

Enzyme Claims Don't Include Celiac Disease Treatment

These products don't specifically claim to treat celiac disease — they'd run afoul of U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules governing the marketing of unapproved drugs if they did.

However, they do claim to provide enzymes that allow your body to better break down the gluten protein, and they allude to the possibility of allowing you to consume "more foods."

FDA regulations don't prevent consumers from touting the alleged benefits of these digestive enzymes on celiac/gluten intolerant forums and discussion groups, and that's why they're mentioned (and promoted) the most frequently.

No Proof Exists That Enzymes Prevent Gluten Symptoms

Digestive enzymes formulated and marketed specifically to help people digest gluten base their science on the concept that symptoms of a glutening result when your body fails to break down the gluten protein properly.

Adding certain types of enzymes — enzymes your body might or might not lack — enables complete digestion, and will help to prevent symptoms from food intolerance, according to the enzymes' marketing materials.

But while there's some evidence that this theory may eventually pan out, there's no evidence that the enzymes marketed over-the-counter right now have some sort of special action against gluten. Keep in mind that these enzymes would need to be far more than 99% effective in eliminating gluten in order to avert a reaction in most people since many react to such tiny amounts.

Researchers Work on Enzymes as Potential Celiac Treatment

Scientists are exploring the possibility of using enzymes as a celiac disease treatment.

Alvine Pharmaceuticals' lead potential product, ALV003, is a mixture of two enzymes that may be able to break down gluten into fragments too small to cause a reaction. That product has been awarded "Fast Track" status by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, meaning that it could be approved quickly if it pans out in clinical trials (now ongoing).

Scientists at Stanford University conducted the initial research on these enzymes, and Alvine has an exclusive worldwide license for the patents.

Other researchers, notably Dr. Frits Koning at Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands, are exploring the idea of digestive enzymes in celiac disease.

Finally, scientists at the University of Washington are developing a digestive enzyme that they might sell over-the-counter. This enzyme, known as KumaMax, supposedly breaks down 99.97% of the gluten in a meal within 30 minutes. (Note, however, that even a 99.97% breakdown rate may not be enough to protect against a reaction in some people.)

Should You Try OTC Digestive Enzymes?

I confess that I bought into the hype surrounding digestive enzymes early on, and tried them in an effort to curb some of the nasty gluten cross-contamination symptoms I got when eating out.

They didn't do a darn thing for me. The only way I got rid of the symptoms was to learn how to avoid gluten when dining out.

Other people claim to have better luck with them, but I'd take their testimonials with a huge grain of salt —it's easy to psych yourself into believing something works, especially if your symptoms are subtle and you really want it to work.

It's especially dangerous to think you can use digestive enzymes to replace the gluten-free diet as your treatment for celiac disease. Cheating on the gluten-free diet can carry some severe health repercussions down the road.

I wish there was a quick-and-easy pill to take to avoid gluten symptoms, but there's not... yet. Until there's an FDA-approved treatment on the market — enzyme-based or not — we'll have to stick with the gluten-free diet.

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