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Vitalzym claims to boost the immune system and ease arthritis pain

The catch: It doesn't, a doctor says.

By Chris Woolston, Special to The Times

April 2, 2007

Vitalzym has an enzyme found in pineapple. Can the pill ease pain or boost immunity? Doctors doubt it. (LAT)

“My acupuncturist sold me a product called Vitalzym. I haven't noticed any obvious benefits. What can you tell me about it?” JEFF W. San Diego The product: A body without enzymes would be like a computer without silicon. You just can't run without them. These, after all, are the special proteins that help drive just about every chemical reaction in the body. They let us breathe, think, fight infections, digest food — things you want to do on a daily basis.

Through most of human history, we had to rely on our own bodies to make our enzymes. But now there's another option: Vitalzym, a supplement produced by World Nutrition Inc. According to the company's website, Vitalzym "provides the enzymes needed for each of the millions of biochemical reactions that make life possible."

There are many enzyme products on the market, but Vitalzym, the company explains, offers a "proprietary" blend found nowhere else. One of the main ingredients is serrapeptase, a protein-digesting or "proteolytic" enzyme that was originally found in the digestive tract of silkworms. Other ingredients include lipase, a common enzyme that helps digest fat, and bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme found in pineapples.

A bottle of Vitalzym costs nearly $160. Taken as directed, it will last about five months.

The claims: Tom Miano, World Nutrition's vice president of sales and marketing, declined to comment on Vitalzym, but there's no shortage of claims on the company's website. We are told that the supplement cleans the blood, boosts the immune system and eases the pain and inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis. Some alternative health websites also claim that enzymes in Vitalzym and similar products help fight cancer.

Bottom line: Some doctors are skeptical. "The stuff doesn't work," says Dr. Steven Bratman, coauthor of the "Natural Health Bible" and senior editor of the online Natural and Alternative Treatments Database. Bratman says enzyme pills can help some people digest food, but it's unlikely that Vitalzym or similar products ease pain, boost the immune system or live up to other promises.

Although we couldn't find any published medical trials on the enzyme formula in Vitalzym, scientists have studied some of the ingredients — with less than impressive results.

A few studies in the 1960s suggested that bromelain could ease pain, but more recent studies have generally failed to find any benefit. A 2001 report from scientists at Oxford University concluded that "there is no published evidence to support the use" of serrapeptase, the silkworm enzyme. According to the American Cancer Society, "there's no reliable evidence that enzyme supplements are effective in treating cancer."

It's no surprise that enzyme treatments have such a lackluster record, Bratman says. Although some diseases such as pancreatitis can reduce the supply of certain digestive enzymes, most people have more than enough enzymes to stay healthy.

There's no known shortage of enzymes in people with rheumatoid arthritis, adds Dr. Richard Brasington, a rheumatologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis — nor any evidence to suggest supplying more of them would help.

Vitalzym tablets are coated to keep the enzymes from dissolving in the stomach, but only a few of the enzymes would be absorbed by the body because most are too large to pass through the walls of the intestines, Bratman says. "The idea that you could get more enzymes just by putting them in your mouth doesn't make any sense."

It also doesn't make much sense to expect enzymes from silkworms or pineapples to cure a wide range of human ills, Brasington says. Every human enzyme has a very specific job, and throwing different enzymes at the task isn't likely to help.

Brasington adds that prescription drugs have to be proved safe and effective before reaching the market. "The standards for nutritional supplements are completely different," he says.

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