Digestive enzymes play an essential role not only in healthy digestion but in the health of your entire body.
However, several contributing factors can reduce the output of these enzymes, causing adverse effects on digestion and overall health. When this happens nutrient malabsorption can occur, which can trigger the onset of illness.
Digestive enzyme supplements, as well as a diet rich in enzymes, can help support digestion when your enzyme production is impaired. With adequate enzyme supply, your body can absorb the vital nutrients it needs to nourish your organs, tissues, cells, glands, and brain.
We include some product recommendations at the bottom of this page. First, let's understand how digestive enzymes work so you know which to choose.
How Digestive Enzymes Work
Proper digestion is reliant on the body’s ability to produce enzymes.
Enzymes are responsible for the chemical processing of food into tiny particles such as amino acids, fatty acids, simple sugars, and nucleic acids that are then absorbed by the small intestine.
This breakdown is crucial to the gut's ability to absorb essential nutrients.
Our bodies make many enzymes to break down and absorb the different foods that we consume. They consist of three main types:
- Proteolytic enzymes — Digest proteins
- Lipase enzymes — Digest fats
- Amylase enzymes — Digest carbohydrates
Other important enzymes include:
- Pepsin — Breaks down protein into polypeptides
- Trypsin and chymotrypsin — Further break down polypeptides
- Cellulase — Breaks down high-fiber foods
- Exopeptidases, carboxypeptidase, and aminopeptidase — Help release amino acids
- Lactase — Breaks down the sugar lactose
- Sucrase — Splits sugar sucrose into glucose and fructose
- Maltase — Breaks down sugar maltose
- Invertase, glucoamylase, and alpha-galactosidase — Breaks down sugar and carbs
When digestion is disrupted by insufficient enzyme production, the body is unable to extract the nutrients it needs to fuel itself.
The undigested food may then ferment in the small intestine, creating harmful compounds. (Quinten et al., 2014)
In situations where an individual has increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut), some of the undigested food and waste may enter the bloodstream and the body — once again — is faced with having to work hard to rid itself of these food particles.
If the body lacks the enzymes it needs for long enough, these somewhat manageable issues can turn into debilitating and long-term health conditions such as:
- Poor immune system functioning
- Chronic fatigue
- Autoimmune conditions
- Ulcerative Colitis and Crohn's Disease
- Thyroid issues
- Arthritis or joint pain
- Headaches or migraines
- Trouble sleeping
A few common factors that may contribute to an enzyme deficiency are:
- Poor diet — Consists of processed foods, refined carbohydrates, genetically modified foods, and foods chemically treated with pesticides. All of which can lead to pancreatic insufficiency
- Stress — Reduces pancreatic enzyme output
- Consumption of alcohol, sugar, and coffee — Causes intestinal inflammation
- Prescription medications and over-the-counter medications — Inhibit acid, alter gut flora, and cause digestive issues
- Comorbidities — Crohn's Disease or Celiac Disease
- Aging — Naturally declines pancreatic functioning
Benefits and Risks
Digestive enzymes are beneficial. Without them, we would not be able to process the food we eat.
If an enzyme insufficiency is suspected, it's always a good idea to supplement.
Digestive enzyme supplements can help benefit you in several ways such as:
- Gives a boost to the gastrointestinal tract functions
- Help treat complications of conditions such as Celiac Disease and leaky gut
- Helps the body to break down macronutrients — protein, fat, and carbohydrates
- May help to improve symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Prevents malnutrition, so long as the individual’s diet is well rounded
- Counteracts foods that are enzyme inhibitors
- Manages digestive disorders
(Ianiro et al., 2016)
Though digestive enzyme supplement dangers are rare, they can occur. Some risks include:
- Abdominal pain
Interactions with some medications
- Blood Thinners
- Diabetes medications
If you think digestive enzyme insufficiency is the reason you have problems with your digestive system or the reason you are suffering from a particular health condition, you are not alone.
A lack of enzyme production is not uncommon for people with digestive symptoms. The most important thing you can do for yourself is to be proactive. By adding a supplement into your daily routine, you may find relief and improve your health.
For each type of macronutrient (fat, carbohydrate, or protein), there is a specific enzyme that is responsible for breaking it down. However, some digestive enzyme supplements can help breakdown all types of food such as fats, proteins, lactose, and starches.
Supplements are derived from one of the following sources: animal, plant, or microbe.
Enzymes derived from animal-based sources include pepsin, trypsin, pancreatin, and chymotrypsin. Pancreatin is the most used animal-based enzyme. This is because it includes protease, amylase, and lipase. All are enzymes needed for the digestion of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Enzymes derived from plant-based sources include bromelain and papain. These provide proteolytic enzymes, which are used to aid in the digestion of proteins. This is a great supplement for individuals who are either vegetarian or vegan.
Microbial-sourced enzymes come from fungi or bacteria. They aid in the digestion of plant-based foods and include amylase, glucoamylase, proteases, lipase, lactase, cellulose, hemicellulase, xylanase, and pectinase.
Also, microbial-sourced digestive enzyme supplements do not hinder natural pancreatic enzyme production.
Despite the ease of use supplements can provide, some individuals may prefer to amp up enzyme production just through diet alone.
Fortunately, plants, raw fruits, and raw vegetables contain several beneficial enzymes, which come from the following sources:
- Fruit — Pineapple and papaya being the most popular. Pineapple contains bromelain, which breaks down various proteins, is anti-inflammatory, and can withstand an acidic or alkaline environment. Papaya contains papain, which breaks down large proteins.
- Plant — Typically derived from yeast and fungi.
However, the supplement you choose depends on your specific needs. Your diet may also dictate what supplement or foods you choose. There can be so many options that it can be challenging to know what the best digestive enzyme option for you is. Keep in my mind that natural is always best.
Additionally, if you have a serious condition always discuss with your doctor what the best options are for your body.
If you and your healthcare provider determine supplements are right for you, we recommend the following: