What is digestive enzyme therapy?

Digestive enzyme therapy involves taking supplementary enzymes to help with digestion. The aim is to help the body digest particular proteins. Some people say these proteins contribute to the characteristics of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Other common names for this therapy include enzyme therapy.

Who is digestive enzyme therapy for?

Anyone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can use digestive enzyme therapy. There are no age restrictions.

What is digestive enzyme therapy used for?

Digestive enzyme therapy is used to relieve the digestive problems commonly found in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It’s claimed that doing this will help reduce the characteristics of ASD – for example, difficulties with social and communication skills.

Where does digestive enzyme therapy come from?

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was first suggested that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might not digest food proteins very well, particularly the proteins casein (found in milk) and gluten (found in wheat).

Based on this idea, certain therapies were developed. First came elimination diets. After some difficulties with these, enzyme therapy was developed as an alternative treatment to help with protein digestion.

What is the idea behind digestive enzyme therapy?

In our bodies, we all have natural chemicals called ‘opioids’, which are similar to morphine in their effect on pain. Some people believe that autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is caused by excess opioid activity in the brain.

When the proteins gluten and casein aren’t properly digested, they release chemicals called exorphins. The exorphins can end up in the nervous system – this is sometimes called ‘leaky gut’ syndrome. The idea is that once these chemicals are in the body, they cause an increase in opioid activity, which disrupts the brain and ‘causes’ ASD.

This theory assumes that characteristics of ASD can be reduced by taking enzymes to improve the digestion of proteins like gluten and casein.

What does digestive enzyme therapy involve?

There are no established practice guidelines for this approach. In some studies, participants were given a dietary enzyme that they took orally three times a day before meals for 12 weeks.

Cost considerations

The cost of this therapy varies depending on the brand of drug used, whether the drug is covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), the drug dose or strength, and whether you hold a concession card like a Health Care Card.

Does digestive enzyme therapy work?

There’s little or no evidence that digestive enzyme therapy has any benefit for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Some studies have shown significant side effects, including stomach problems, nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue and dizziness.

Who practises digestive enzyme therapy?

Although digestive enzymes are available in many health food stores and pharmacies, it’s always best to speak to your GP or paediatrician or a paediatric dietitian before using this therapy.

Parent education, training, support and involvement

If your child is taking digestive enzyme supplements, you need to ensure your child takes the enzyme before each meal for the duration of the therapy.

Where can you find a practitioner?

Talk with your GP or paediatrician or a paediatric dietician before using digestive enzymes. You could also talk with your NDIA planner, NDIS early childhood partner or NDIS local area coordination partner, if you have one.

There are many treatments for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They range from those based on behaviour and development to those based on medicine or alternative therapy. Our article on types of interventions for children with ASD takes you through the main treatments, so you can better understand your child’s options.