Posted on Mon, 21 May 12
Anyone on a gluten free diet knows it’s not easy, which is why digestive enzyme pills are being investigated as a solution for gluten intolerance. But can they help?
Normally when you eat protein your digestive enzymes help break it down so it can be absorbed. Efficient protein digestion also prevents you from developing food allergy and sensitivity. However your digestive enzymes are not strong enough to digest gluten, a protein found in some cereal grains.
Because of its tough chemical structure (its rich in bonds containing the amino acid proline) you cannot break it down and for people with gluten intolerance, intact gluten in the gut spells trouble.
So why not just take a digestive enzyme supplement when you want to eat gluten then? Actually this is a great idea, in theory, but we are far from this being a practical reality.
The first hurdle is that not any enzyme will do the job. Researchers have managed to identify specific enzymes that could digest gluten although their experiments also found that they are broken down in your stomach acid so don’t even make it to your gut were they need be to work (1).
Even putting them in a protective capsule didn’t really help because they turned out to be too weak once past the stomach. The enzymes failed to digest the gluten before it reached the part of your gut where it triggers intolerance (2).
A promising recent study managed to identify a candidate enzyme (a specific proline cutting enzyme, prolyl endoprotease from Aspergillus niger) that was not only resistant to stomach acid but also efficient enough to be able to quickly and almost completely break down the gluten (3).
This however was an experimental study, not in people, so it is not at all clear whether this would also work in a real world scenario of say popping a pill then eating a pizza.
So if you see products being sold as gluten enzymes, be warned, we don’t know if they work yet and products marketed as such are potentially dangerous if you are gluten intolerant. For now at least the best approach is going gluten free.
1. Shan L, Marti T, Sollid LM, Gray GM, Khosla C. Comparative biochemical analysis of three bacterial prolyl endopeptidases: implications for coeliac sprue. Biochem J. 2004 Oct 15;383(Pt 2):311-8.
2. Marti T, Molberg O, Li Q, Gray GM, Khosla C, Sollid LM. Prolyl endopeptidase-mediated destruction of T cell epitopes in whole gluten: chemical and immunological characterization. J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2005 Jan;312(1):19-26.
3. Mitea C, Havenaar R, Drijfhout JW, Edens L, Dekking L, Koning F. Efficient degradation of gluten by a prolyl endoprotease in a gastrointestinal model: implications for coeliac disease. Gut. 2008 Jan;57(1):25-32.