Why it feels harder to dose pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) than insulin

In 2002 when I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I struggled with being handed a vial of insulin and told vaguely to eat X amount of food and take Y amount of insulin. There was no ability to eat more and adjust the dose accordingly. It was frustrating. The only tool I had was a huge (imagine three iPhone 13 or equivalently large smartphones sitting on top of each other) blood glucose meter that took a lot of blood and a long time (a minute or more) to return a single blood glucose data point. The feedback loop wasn’t very useful, even when I tested my blood sugar manually 10-14 times per day.

Thankfully, in the last two decades, diabetes tools have evolved. Meters got smaller, faster, and take less blood. There has also been the devlopment of continuous glucose monitors (CGM) which I can wear and get near real-time readings of glucose data and can see what’s happened in the past. And, paired with an algorithm that also knows about the history of any insulin dosing on my insulin pump, and it can automatically adjust my insulin delivery in real time to predict, prevent, and reduce hypo- and hyperglycemia. (AID is awesome and if you haven’t heard about it, there’s a 4-minute free animated video here that explains it.) Diabetes no longer is quite the headache it was twenty – or even ten – years ago.

But realizing that I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (known as EPI or PEI) and learning how to take pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (known as PERT) is a similar headache to diabetes in 2002.

With insulin, taking too much can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Taking too little can cause hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). Yet, with diabetes, you can measure blood glucose and see the response to insulin within a minutes-to-hours time frame. You can also use an insulin pump and an automated insulin delivery system to titrate and adjust insulin in real time.

However, for EPI, you need to take enzymes (that your pancreas doesn’t produce enough of) to help you digest your food. Your pancreas makes three types of enzymes: lipase, to help fat digest; protease, to help protein digest; and amylase, to help starches and carbohydrates digest. These are taken by mouth as a pill that you swallow. Together in one pill, it’s called “pancrelipase”, and it’s for pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT). (I’m personally bad about using pancrelilpase/PERT interchangeably, because PERT is faster to say and type, but it is possible to use standalone enzymes in PERT).

Because they are pills that you have to swallow when you eat, it’s hard to dose. Taking too little means you may have GI-related symptoms in the hours following the meal and feeling bad until the next day or so. Taking too much is expensive, although unlike insulin it’s rare to take “too much” and cause bad side effects (although possible at super high doses). There’s also the “pill burden”, because swallowing a bunch of pills is annoying and sometimes hard, both physically to swallow and to remember to take them throughout your meal.

You also can’t take more hours later if you forgot to take them or realize you didn’t dose enough for that meal. If you underdosed, you underdosed and just get to experience the symptoms that come with it. Sometimes, it’s not clear why you are having symptoms. Because there are three enzymes being replaced, it’s possible that the dosing was off for any one of the three enzymes. But again, there’s no measurement or feedback loop, or a sign that appears saying “you underdosed protease, take more next time”. The best you can do is try different sized meals over time with different doses of PERT, trying to reverse engineer your lipase:fat and protease:protein and amylase:carb ratios and continuously update them as you have new data.

It’s a lot of work, the feedback loop is slow, getting it “wrong” is painful physically and psychologically, and there are no vacations from it. Everything I eat, now that I have EPI, needs enzymes, and given the fact that I have automated insulin delivery to help manage insulin dosing, I am finding PERT to be a lot harder and more annoying (currently).

A comparison of dosing insulin and dosing enzymes. Insulin can cause hypo- or hyperlgycemia but there are tools (CGM and BG meters) and a feedback loop in diabetes. With enzymes, there is no fast feedback loop and underdosing is common. There is no ability to correct an underdose and there are multiple variables that can influence the outcome.

There’s no happy ending to this post, but this is one of the reasons why I am so interested in partnering with researchers to do research on EPI. There are a LOT of improvements that can be made, ranging from improving titration guidance of PERT to testing the efficacy of different over the counter enzymes to finding new technology that might begin to provide a feedback loop into EPI (either for short-term assessment or longer-term use for those who prefer it). If you’re someone interested in this type of research, please don’t hesitate to reach out (Dana@OpenAPS.org).

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

Feeling hunger for the first time in two years after discovering Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI or PEI)

Now that I’ve been taking pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) for a month and a half for my newly discovered exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), I’ve not only discovered that the GI symptoms I had are gone, but I’ve also gained something back: the sensation of hunger.

For two years, I’ve struggled to eat. I found a breakfast that I could eat that was higher fiber (albeit nontypical American breakfast food) and kept me full for hours. So many hours that I didn’t feel like eating at lunchtime.

Essentially, I would eat breakfast and maybe one other meal, and occasionally a snack. Far from three meals. I learned quickly that eating just because other people were eating made things worse (worse symptom severity, plus gave me more symptoms), so I studiously avoided eating just because that’s what I had done in the past or that’s what other people were doing.

Figuring out I had EPI and starting to dose PERT was a relief. I could tell from symptom reduction that it was working. And within a week or so, I started to feel hunger multiple times a day! Now I’m more regularly eating three small meals a day, and sometimes more (especially on after long runs). My meals are more likely to be a little bit smaller due to how I’m titrating my PERT dosing, so that plus my activity levels plus actually digesting my food when I eat it means that I’m eating more often now than I have over the last few years.

The only downside is that my brain is VERY unfamiliar with the sensation of hunger, and despite knowing I will not starve or even be hungry for very long, there seems to be a switch after three minutes where I go from recognizing hunger and starting to think about doing something to having already passed the point of no return where my number one priority becomes eating.

The timeline of my body becoming hungry (0 minutes), my brain recognizing hunger (1 minute), thinking about eating (2 minutes), deciding to eat (3 minuntes), and then a flip switching and I go from wanting to NEEDING to eat as soon as possible.

I’m guessing this is what toddlers feel like, and I have a lot more empathy for their hanger now after experiencing this! And like toddlers, hopefully my brain re-learns how to deal with and moderate the feelings of hunger soon.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

How I calculate fat and protein for pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) dosing in homecooked meals

As I’ve been re-adding food items to my diet now that I know I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), I’ve been eating a lot of packaged foods with nutrition labels that are quick and easy to read. I’ve done a few meals that are takeout from a restaurant, and certainly the ones from chain restaurants with nutrition labels online are the easiest to enable me to optimally dose my PERT. (But not all restaurants, including my new favorite local taco place, have them and so I also do quite a bit of guesswork and experimenting.)

I’m now at the point where I can eat some onion and garlic and other FODMAPs again (yay!), so a lot of the homecooked meals I used to love to make – especially crockpot meals – are back on my list to try. This week I decided to try taco soup, a longtime favorite that involves cans of black beans, corn, dark red kidney beans, light red kidney beans, cooked ground beef, tomato paste, and ranch and taco seasonings.

One of the reasons I waited to cook large meals until this point in my EPI discovery experience was to save my energy for figuring out the fat and protein per portion size.

I’ve been creating a tab in my PERT enzyme tracking spreadsheet that’s labeled “ingredients”, and I’ve been listing commonly used ingredients (e.g. an egg, 1/4 cup of cheddar cheese, 1/4 cup of parmesan, 1 cup of milk) that I often add to my food and repeatedly need to add to my nutrient totals. I listed out all the ingredients for my taco soup recipe (see above), looked up the fat and protein and logged those, then added them all up for what one giant crockpot full of taco soup would be. That’s 44 grams of fat and 177 grams of protein.

(Side note – I found that Impossible ground beef tastes the same as ground beef and ends up being lower fat and protein. I was going to use it anyway, but that makes it easier to dose PERT by slightly reducing the fat and protein quantities.)

Then, after I cooked it (truly, set it and forget it), I scooped out a cup at a time to estimate the number of cups. For my current crockpot, it was about 12 cups.

So to figure out the taco soup individual serving size, I take 44 and 177 and divide each by 12, so it’s about 4 grams of fat and 15 grams of protein per cup of soup. I usually eat 2 cups at a time, so multiply by two to get the total of what I’m needing to dose PERT for, which is 8 grams of fat and 30 grams of protein. That’s *just* at my 1-PERT limit (at my current dosing)  for protein and well under my 1-PERT limit for fat (also about 30 grams), so I was able to cover 2 cups of soup with 1 PERT pill.

However, were I to add 1/4 cup of cheddar cheese, as I sometimes do, I’d need to add on additional enzymes to cover the protein. (It’s frustrating that I’m this sensitive to protein, enzyme-wise!)

This is also what I’ll do with potato soup (another crockpot favorite) and any other recipes that I make. Like diabetes tasks, I’ve found that splitting up the work whenever possible makes a difference, so I’ll list out the ingredients and look up the data and determine the total recipe counts separately from when I cook it, and from when I measure out how many servings there are and arrive at the final serving math.
An overview of the process of adding up fat and protein for all ingredients in a recipe; cooking and counting out the number of portions, then dividing the fat and protein totals by the number of portions (I use cups) to determine how many grams of each per serving and determine how much PERT to dose.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

An example of the challenges of (constantly) titrating pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT)

As someone new to EPI who is also new to figuring out how to optimally dose my pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), I’m constantly balancing the cost of PERT from prescription enzymes against the cost of over the counter enzymes.

I’ve personally calculated that one pill of my current dose of PERT covers about 30-4o grams of fat, and 30 grams of protein.

Meals with more than 30 grams of protein get 2 PERT pills, but meals with more than 40 or so grams of fat could be covered by 1 PERT pill and some OTC lipase.

But not all meals come with nutrition information, which makes titrating PERT at every single meal a challenge.

And, now that I’ve realized I’m likely not sensitive to all FODMAPs after all (hooray, although I may still have some slight sensitivity to massive amounts of onion or garlic), I’ve been able to eat a lot more takeout food from restaurants, both enthralling my taste buds and challenging my brain trying to estimate how much fat and protein there is in what I am choosing to eat.

I’ve been keeping careful notes of what I’m eating along with my fat and protein estimates and the results following each meal. Then, if I want to repeat or alter a similar meal, I can use my data and results to guesstimate my next PERT dosing.

For example, we have a local taco place that has done a really good job to enable online ordering with gluten-free and celiac tags in the order, so you can order digitally without having to talk to humans at the store. A few weeks ago, I ordered 3 tacos and some queso dip. It was delicious. I estimated it was more than 30g of protein, so I took 2 PERT with it.

However, while I didn’t have post-meal immediate symptoms, my next-day results were slightly off, and I made a note that I probably needed a little more lipase the next time I had that quantity of tacos.

Yesterday, I ordered 3 tacos again but decided to try a small “street corn” appetizer instead of queso. Corn is less fat and protein than queso, but I figured there was still >30g of protein from tacos like from before, so I took 2 PERT. This time, due to my notes, I added a few lipase to cover additional fat.

I had no immediate post-meal symptoms and felt great! However, today indicated that I did not have enough enzymes, and I’m suspecting that it’s because I swapped one of my taco types. Last time, I had a shrimp taco, but this time I tried a lamb taco for my third taco type. Even with the reduced fat and protein going from queso to corn, the increase in fat and/or protein (likely the protein, given my extra lipase) from shrimp to lamb meant that my meal was not optimally dosed.A gif showing three tacos and queso plus 2 PERT got ok results, but next time I swapped queso for corn and added lipase and still got it wrong, likely due to increased fat and protein in lamb instead of shrimp in one of the tacos.

 

Next time, I need to pay closer attention to what kind of tacos I eat as well as whether I get queso or not. If I did the same meal (three tacos, one of which is lamb, and corn), I’d probably experiment with 3 PERT to cover the suspected increased protein that I was missing with the 2 PERT + extra lipase. If I went back to a shrimp taco and queso, I’d probably re-try 2 PERT + extra lipase again.

PERT dosing, like insulin dosing, involves a lot of experimentation and some art, and some science, to try to get it right (or better) every time.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

A Do-It-Yourself Protocol for Over-The-Counter Enzymes for Suspected Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) Before Gaining Access to Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT)

A humorous side note – the title of this blog, DIYPS, stands for “do-it-yourself pancreas system”, the name I gave my first automated insulin delivery (AID) system, back in 2013. An AID system doesn’t fully replicate all functions of the pancreas, so we evolved from describing it as an artificial pancreas system (APS) to automated insulin delivery (AID). But now that I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and am doing quite a bit of DIY around titration of enzymes….the name of this blog feels more appropriate than ever.

After I started writing about exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends and connections who think they might have EPI. (And they are likely not wrong – there are estimates that as many as 40% of people with type 1 diabetes have lowered elastase levels. Alone, that doesn’t indicate EPI, but if symptomatic and you’ve already ruled out celiac and gastroparesis, it should be (in my opinion) high on the list of things to test for. Ditto for other types of diabetes and anyone with celiac disease.) Some people, though, may have delays in getting doctor’s appointments, and/or clinicians who aren’t (yet) willing to order the elastase or other EPI-related tests without testing for other things first.

This post is for that group of folks, and anyone stumbling across this post who has seen their test results for their fecal elastase testing indicating they have “moderate pancreatic insufficiency” or “severe pancreatic insufficiency” and are wondering what they can do while they wait for their doctor’s appointment.

It’s also for people with EPI who are struggling to afford their pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) or are limiting the number or size of meals they eat as a result of the cost of PERT.

A bit of background on why I did the math about OTC enzyme cost and why I had tested them myself

Due to the holidays in December 2021 I had a lag between getting my test results (over Christmas) and then confirming that my doctor would write a prescription for PERT, and then a delay in getting it filled by the pharmacy since they had to order it. One of the things I did during that time was read up a lot about PERT and also look to see if there were any other kinds of enzymes that would be useful to take if my doctor didn’t want to prescribe me PERT. I found out that PERT contains THREE types of enzymes, and together they’re known as pancrelipase. Pancrelipase contains lipase (helps digest fat), protease (helps digest protein), and amylase (helps digest starches and other complex carbohydrates). It’s typically made from ground up pig pancreas, which is one of the reasons that PERT costs so much. Amylase from non-pancreatic sources is not widely available for human consumption, but there are some other ways to make protease and lipase. And it turns out that these standalone enzyme versions, often produced by microbes, are available to buy over the counter.

While waiting for my test to be ordered, I went ahead and ordered a standalone lipase product that is over the counter (OTC). In part, that was because some of the reviews for lipase talked about having EPI and how they were only sensitive to lipase, and so this was a viable and cheaper alternative for them rather than taking PERT with all 3 enzymes, since they didn’t need that. Based on my experience with FODMAPs and trying an enzyme powder to target fructans (which did help me some), it seemed like trying small doses of lipase would help if I did have EPI, and likely wouldn’t hurt even if I did not have EPI.

And it helped. It didn’t reduce all my symptoms, but even minor doses (3000 units of lipase) made a noticeable difference in my symptoms and I got a sense for what meals were more fat and protein-laden than others.

As a result, when my test results came in and I was on the borderline for moderate EPI, I agreed with my HCP that since it likely wouldn’t hurt to take PERT (other than the cost), and it would be obvious if it helped, that I should try PERT.

So having done the tests with OTC (over the counter) lipase was helpful for deciding to take PERT and advocating for my prescription.

And it turns out, wow yes, I do have EPI and do definitely need PERT (more about my first two weeks on PERT here).

And as I wrote here, because I had the OTC lipase sitting around, even after I finally had access to PERT, I eventually titrated my dosing and calculated separate ratios for lipase:fat and protease:protein, so I can decide for every meal or snack whether I need one full PERT (all three enzymes), two PERT, a PERT plus some lipase (and how much), or just a standalone OTC lipase. The cost differs greatly between those options: one PERT might be $9 and a standalone lipase pill around $0.26. You can’t break apart a PERT (e.g. take only half), so adding a few lipase is a cost-effective approach if you don’t need more protease or amylase and the OTC lipase works for you.

Some of the reasons to explore over the counter enzymes with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or a suspected case of EPI

One interesting thing about one of the main tests (fecal elastase) used to assess EPI is that it is NOT impacted by taking enzymes. Someone who is started on pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) can still have an elastase test without stopping taking PERT. So if someone had an inconclusive result or was borderline and started taking PERT, but their doctor wanted to re-test again, the use of PERT would not affect the test. The same goes for other types of enzymes.

I’ve realized that the following groups of people might want to investigate various OTC enzyme options:

  • Someone who has been diagnosed with EPI, but has done careful testing with meals of various sizes (low fat & high protein, high fat & low protein, etc.) to determine that they really only need lipase, may benefit from cheaper lipase-only OTC options.
  • Someone who has a test result for EPI but doesn’t yet have an appointment with their doctor or a prescription for PERT could start taking some OTC enzymes for quicker symptom relief, even if they ultimately want to use PERT for all their enzyme needs once they get their prescription filled.
  • Someone diagnosed with EPI who cannot afford the ideal dose of PERT that they need for their meals and snacks, may want to calculate the out of pocket costs for OTC lipase (not covered by insurance) vs the cost of PERT with or without insurance.
  • Someone who can’t get tested for EPI, but suspects they have EPI, might want to also explore OTC lipase and/or OTC multiple enzyme products.

However, not everyone with EPI will want OTC enzymes. Some people may have great insurance coverage, so their PERT costs them less than $9 a pill. OTC enzymes are not covered by insurance, but I’d still do the math and assess what your standard cost is per pill, because it may surprise you how cheap add-on OTC lipase is vs. your insurance deductible or copay to take additional PERT for larger meals. The other reason some people may not want to take OTC enzymes is the pill burden: OTC doses tend to be smaller, so you usually need to take more pills to cover the same meal as a single, larger PERT.

Picking what enzymes (in general, or specific brands) work for you

I often see a variety of OTC enzyme products recommended in peer groups on social media for EPI. There are no studies that I can find assessing the efficacy of these OTC brands (meaning, how good they are). I would be very cautious when trying different single or multiple enzyme products and keep a careful log of your symptoms from before enzymes as well as symptoms at every meal that you take enzymes, and your bathroom results afterward. This can help you assess OTC enzymes as well as PERT if you get access to it. By having a good log of your symptoms, you can tell if you’re taking enough enzymes (OTC or PERT) or if you’re developing new symptoms (which could be a side effect of whatever brand/type you are taking).

There are multiple brands and sizes of PERT, too, and it’s possible that a filler product or how the PERT is made by one brand doesn’t work well for you. If that’s the case, you can try another brand of PERT.

The same goes for OTC enzymes: it is very possible some types of pills may be made with ingredients that could bother you and cause symptoms themselves. You should definitely be very cautious if you go this route and explore small doses and ensure no side effects (no new symptoms) before increasing any doses.

When I search for lipase, it’s easy to find standalone lipase (here is an example, as an Amazon affiliate link). When I search for protease, it’s more common to find products that are multiple enzymes (e.g. lipase AND protease AND other random things that are “good for digestion”). Personally, I’m very wary of anything OTC that’s described as “digestive enzymes” and prefer to stick to products that only have the ingredients I’m looking for.

A pro-con list for over the counter (OTC) enzymes for EPI. Pros include: lower cost overall and per pill; that you can take smaller quantities of individual enzymes; and you can buy them without a prescription. Cons include: it's not covered by insurance so cost is out of pocket; you have to take more pills with smaller amounts of enzymes; it's not regulatory approved so othere are no studies on efficacy; and providers may not be able to advise for titration.
In diabetes, we often say “your diabetes may vary” (YDMV), indicating that different people can have different experiences.

In EPI, it’s no different – “your digestion may vary” and it’s important to test and record and find what works for you, and to find a balance of reducing or eliminating symptoms with enzymes in a cost-effective way that you can afford.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)

Cost calculations of Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) for Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) and alternative over the counter enzyme products

I previously wrote about my experience figuring out that I have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (known as EPI or PEI), and also a little bit about starting on pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT). I talked briefly about the method I was using to figure out the right amount of PERT for me, but I realize that there’s a lot more detail I could provide about how to titrate enzymes in general, and not just PERT.

Some background first, though. When I write about PERT (pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy), I am talking about the FDA-approved class of drugs (called “pancrelipase”) that contain THREE types of enzymes, which the FDA calls “pancreatic enzyme products” or PEPs. Pancrelipase contains lipase (helps digest fat), protease (helps digest protein), and amylase (helps digest starches and other complex carbohydrates). As of 2010, all pancrelipase products that are marketed for EPI must be FDA approved.

Any time I refer (here or in other blog posts) to other enzyme products (either single enzyme or multi-enzyme), I’m referring to over the counter products that are not FDA approved.

Why does FDA approval matter for PEPs? FDA approval is essentially a rubber stamp saying you can trust the FDA to have validated that the companies making these products are making them as they describe them, meaning if they say they have 25,000 units of lipase, they actually have 25,000 units of lipase in them. (And protease and amylase). FDA-approved PEPs used in PERT are made from ground up pig pancreas (really), which is why they’re expensive. There is no generic PEP or PERT. (FDA also has a nice page here explaining the importance of understanding what is and is not an approved PEP/PERT product, and it also explains the brands that are currently approved and the differences between them.) This matters because when you talk about the cost people will probably suggest a “generic” of PERT, but there isn’t one.

However, there are non-FDA-approved over the counter enzyme products. They do exist, but because they have not been vetted by the FDA, I (and you!) should be wary about trusting them when they say they contain X units of lipase or any other enzyme product. Additionally, there are no studies (that I can find) comparing the efficacy between over the counter enzymes (single or multi-enzyme products) and FDA-approved PERT. (If you have found such a study, please leave a comment!)

So does that mean you can’t take them? No, I’m not saying that. What I am saying is you should only try other products with enzymes if you are willing to carefully test and vet FOR YOURSELF whether they work FOR YOU or not. (P.S. – did I mention I’m not a doctor? This is not medical advice; for medical advice, talk with your doctor. Although, doctors may not be aware of the over the counter enzyme options either, and this post might be worth sharing with them as well).

Three goals for optimally titrating enzymes for exocrine pancreatic insufficiency

I have three goals for getting my PERT dose titrated well.

  • First, get enough enzymes (through PERT) to reduce all symptoms.
  • Second, test and assess my lipase:fat and protease:protein ratios so I can figure out how to optimally dose enzymes for new meals of different amounts of fat and protein.
  • Third, optimize for reducing cost with enzymes, through a combination of supplementing PERT with standalone lipase and/or using lipase for fat-only snacks.

Here’s an example of how you might consider vetting over the counter enzyme products, and using them to supplement your FDA-approved (and hopefully insurance-covered) PERT:

As I mentioned earlier, I titrated and found out that my current dose of PERT covers about 30-40 grams of fat and 30 grams of protein. Some individuals only need support in digesting fat (e.g., need only lipase), but I have found that my body also needs support in digesting protein. (However, I don’t appear to need much amylase for carbohydrates.) Therefore I am tracking what amount of fat and protein I am eating with every meal. A 25,000 (lipase) dose of my PERT also contains enough protease to cover 30 grams of protein. Sometimes, I eat higher (>30-40g) fat meals that mean I need more lipase. So I would need two pills of the current dose of PERT, because 25,000 only covers ~30-40g of fat (FOR ME).

But – what if there was another way to get additional lipase without needing a full second pill of PERT, if I don’t need the additional support for more protein for this meal?

Enter over the counter enzyme options. In this example, a single enzyme option for lipase. Here is an example (Amazon affiliate link) to a standalone, single enzyme lipase product that is available as an over the counter product.

I personally have experimented with using standalone over the counter lipase to supplement my PERT dose, for the reason described above (needing more lipase but not necessarily needing more protease or amylase). The reason I would choose standalone lipase has to do with cost.

PERT, being ground up pig pancreas, is expensive. There is no generic for PERT! However, there have been methods to develop lipase from microbes as well as other sources beyond animals. Thus, it is possible to have a standalone source of lipase that is a lot cheaper than PERT. How much cheaper? Well, the bottle linked above when I calculated this was $23.50 for 90 pills. One pill each contains roughly 3,150 units of lipase (again, caveat from above about trusting the amount in over the counter products). That means each pill ($23.50/90 pills) is $0.26 USD, and each 1,000 units of lipase is roughly $0.08.

This math is then helpful to compare the cost of PERT. Depending on the size of prescription PERT, you might see a prescription anywhere from 3,000 to 25,000 to 36,000 units (depending on the brand, they have different amounts, but they are all measured based on units of lipase). Using GoodRx, you can generally compare retail prices of medications, such as this search for 24,000 PERT of one brand (90 capsules) or this search for 25,000 PERT of a different brand (also 90 capsules). Both of them are in the ballpark (for 90 capsules each) of $700-900, so let’s use $800 for 90 capsules for simple math. The per-pill price is $8.89 ($800/90 pills). The per-1,000 unit of lipase cost depends on whether you are using the 24,000 PERT ($8.89/24) or 25,000 PERT ($8.89/25) option, but those are roughly $0.37 and $0.36 per 1000 units of lipase.

So if you were to consume a meal that was ~10g of fat above your current PERT dose, and you didn’t need additional protein support, it would be cheaper to add on additional lipase (at $0.08 per 1000 units of lipase) as a standalone enzyme product instead of an additional PERT (which is, per our estimates, ~$0.36 per 1000 units of lipase). You don’t get to break apart a PERT (It can’t be cut in half, for example), so the per-pill cost is the better comparison. Adding a 3000-ish unit lipase onto your meal to cover an additional 10g of fat costs $0.26, and a second PERT is $8.89.

Therefore, a meal that needs 28,000 lipase is cheaper as 1 PERT and 1 extra standalone lipase rather than 2 PERT.

This of course assumes you have tested the standalone lipase and found that it works for you. I personally have done so and found that standalone lipase of the brand I chose works for this purpose (there are many brands and sizes: again, test what works for you), so I can titrate my meals as PERT+lipase, or even take 1-2 lipase (depending on the fat content) for a snack that’s mainly fat. However, again, a caveat that I personally am sensitive to protein and am tracking everything that I’m eating, so I know my personal math very well. Typical PERT dosing and recommendations is to take “2 or more” for meals or “1-2 for snacks”, but that completely ignores how much fat and protein is in the meals, and might be significantly undertreatment or overtreatment for you.

Why does undertreatment matter? Well, you get symptoms. Those are no fun.

Why does overtreatment matter? Well, you can get constipation. (I haven’t had it, but it also doesn’t sound like fun). At the extreme end of the scale, there is also a risk of fibrosing colonopathy if you take more than certain units per kg of body weight for a long time. (If you’re concerned about this issue and haven’t discussed it with your doctor, do so – they should be able to tell you where the risk threshold is based on your personal body weight if you don’t want to calculate it yourself).
A gif showing a square moving along a spectrum from "too little" to "too much enzyme". Too little enzyme and you have symptoms, not enough and you reduce but don't eliminate symptoms. Enough enzymes and you eliminate symptoms. Too much risks constipation.

My approach was making sure my meals were covered first with prescription PERT, then evaluating additional standalone products that I could use to supplement or replace PERT depending on what I was eating, so I could prioritize reducing symptoms and then for improving the cost required to achieve that.

There are other standalone enzyme products, including products containing multiple enzymes. If you join one of the Facebook groups for EPI, you’ll see people recommencing various names of enzymes for over the counter products. But again, you really should test things and see if they work for you. Read all the ingredients on any product you’re taking. A lot of times you can search for lipase and you’ll get a multiple-enzyme product. And that product may have additional ingredients or fillers that don’t sit well with you. You may even find that one brand of prescription PERT might not work for you, whereas another one does.

My suggestions include:

  • Carefully test any product, whether it’s PERT or over the counter enzymes. Keep a good log of your post-meal symptoms and next-day symptoms (e.g. bathroom results) and try different meals with different amounts of fat and protein.
  • If you have symptoms regularly with a certain amount of enzymes, it could be either that this particular brand (over the counter or even prescription PERT) does not work well for you, OR that you are not taking enough enzymes to cover your needs.
  • If in doubt, talk with your doctor. They may/not have opinions on over the counter products, especially if they haven’t had other patients reporting back what is working for them or not, since there are no studies on those particular brands (and of course, they’re not FDA approved). But with approved PERT, they should be able to give you some more input on how to increase your dose or change your prescription to adjust. Having the data on how much fat and protein you’re eating and what results you’ve been getting could help you (and them) get to a more optimal dose more quickly.

(PS, if you didn’t see them, I have other posts about EPI at DIYPS.org/EPI)