We already know that eating nutritious food is essential for our health. But eating food is no guarantee that our body will digest and absorb its nutrients. There are hundreds of steps our body takes before we can reap the benefits of our green smoothie in the morning. One of these steps involves digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes are needed to break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in our meal. Only then can they be absorbed into our cells for healthy functioning. With all the chemical processes to keep track of, it is not uncommon to have something go awry. Although our body can make its own digestive enzymes, when things go awry, people may need to take supplemental enzymes to help themselves along.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Believe it or not, we begin digesting our food as soon as we start chewing! The first enzymes that begin breaking down our food are found in our saliva. As our food travels through our digestive system, dozens more enzymes enter the scene at various points along the way. Digestive enzymes are produced in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, small intestine, and liver. Our bodies are also aided by other enzymes that are found in the food we eat.
Each enzyme has a singular task for breaking down one aspect of our food. Collectively, enzymes break down macronutrients (carbs, fats, and proteins) into smaller compounds. These compounds are then further broken down by specialized enzymes into progressively smaller units until individual micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, are extracted. Once extracted, these nutrients can then be absorbed and utilized by our body. There are three classes of digestive enzymes, each one containing specialized enzymes:
Amylase breaks down carbs into simple sugars. Specifically, amylase breaks down starches found in all plants, grains, and dairy products. Lactase, sucrase, maltase, and many other enzymes help to further break down specific types of sugars.
Protease, with the help of peptidase, break down proteins into amino acids. There are several types of protease enzymes that may be found in supplements, such as bromelain, chymotrypsin, papain, and trypsin.
Lipase, along with bile, work to break down triglycerides and fats (lipids) into fatty acids and cholesterol. Lipase is needed to properly digest dairy products, oils, nuts, eggs, and meat. Lipase is also crucial for extracting fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K from food.
Why Take Digestive Enzyme Supplements?
There are a number of reasons why people have to supplement with digestive enzymes, but the most common reason is due to digestive issues. Symptoms such as gas, bloating, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea, may feel like a normal Friday night, but when these symptoms persist it’s wise to take a look at what you’re eating and how your body responds to certain foods. Let’s take a look at what could be going on:
- People may lack a particular digestive enzyme and therefore have trouble breaking down the foods that require that enzymes’ help. For example, pectinase breaks down the pectin found in fruits. A person who doesn’t make enough pectinase will have trouble digesting certain fruits.
- Other times, a person may be quite low in certain nutrients whose enzyme is not freeing it up to be absorbed. For example, if any of the protease enzymes aren’t working properly, a person will have trouble absorbing amino acids from the protein in their meal.
- Still others may be low in those certain enzymes which are produced by our gut bacteria. For example, humans cannot digest the cellulose fiber found in certain plants. Instead, cellulose is broken down by some of our gut bacteria. These helpful bacteria produce cellulase, the enzyme needed to break down cellulose. If a person has an imbalance of gut bacteria, however, it can affect how well they break down fibrous plant foods, causing digestive discomfort.
Symptoms of Low Enzyme Production
All body systems are interconnected. If something is not working properly in one area, it will affect the function of other areas. The same goes for insufficient enzyme production. If we aren’t digesting properly, that means undigested food goes where it shouldn’t; namely, the small intestine. Once there, these undigested food particles can cause a host of symptoms, many of which seem entirely unrelated to digestion. Here are some symptoms related to insufficient enzyme production:
- Acid reflux
- Stool that floats or looks “greasy”
- Cravings for certain foods
- Thyroid problems
- Heartburn, indigestion or burping
- Hair that is thinning or falling out
- Dry or lackluster skin
- Trouble concentrating or brain fog
- Morning fatigue
- Trouble sleeping well
- Arthritis or joint pain
- Muscle weakness or feeling too tired to exercise
- Mood swings, depression or irritability
- Headaches or migraines
- Worsened PMS
Health Conditions That Affect Enzyme Production
Lastly, there are those who have certain health conditions which affect the production and utilization of digestive enzymes. Taking digestive enzymes as a supplement would be beneficial for those with the following conditions. This is not an exhaustive list.
Digestive disorders or symptoms: Digestive issues can result from insufficient digestive enzyme production (among other reasons). Symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation, acid reflux, abdominal pain, and gas, can be helped by increasing your enzymes. Enzymes also help with various digestive disorders such as leaky gut, food sensitivities, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), SIBO, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and diverticulitis.
Age-Related Enzyme Insufficiency: We produce less stomach acid as we age. Stomach acid, or hydrochloric acid, is critical to triggering the release of digestive enzymes from the pancreas. If a person does not produce enough stomach acid, they consequently do not produce enough digestive enzymes. Taking digestive enzyme supplements is often needed for older people with low stomach acid levels.
Hypochlorhydria: Low stomach acid (or hypochlorhydria) can also affect people of any age. Insufficient stomach acid makes it difficult to extract the minerals, vitamins and nutrients from food. Ordinarily, when food enters the stomach, many micronutrients are released, but having hypochlorhydria can prevent this release from happening. When this occurs, it can result in insufficient enzyme production.
Low Bile Production: Bile is produced by our liver and stored in our gallbladder. Its purpose is to emulsify fats into smaller droplets so that lipase (the enzyme that helps digest fats) can break them down easier. If bile production is low (or non-existent), the lipase enzyme will not be efficient at its job and a person will have a hard time digesting fat in their food. Any condition affecting the liver or gallbladder would thus affect our digestion of fats. Such conditions include, various liver diseases, gallstones, bile duct disorders, having the gallbladder removed, or following a low fat diet for several years.
Pancreatic Insufficiency: Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) is when the pancreas fails to secrete digestive enzymes, thus causing maldigestion and malabsorption. This is commonly experienced by those with pancreatic cancer. EPI can also be caused by cystic fibrosis, chronic pancreatitis, diabetes, IBD, celiac disease, and anybody who has undergone surgery on the pancreas or stomach.
Food and Supplement Sources of Digestive Enzymes
As we’ve learned, there are many reasons why people may need to increase their digestive enzymes. Furthermore, we know that enzymes each have specific tasks to break down specific nutrients. This means that enzymes are condition-specific. For example, a person’s health condition may necessitate taking one type of enzyme to help digest one type of food. Other times, a person may require a broad array of enzymes to address the digestion of all foods. When a person needs digestive enzymes, There are a couple ways to accomplish this: through supplements and through certain foods.
Enzymes From Supplements:
Given that enzymes are condition-specific, many people may need to supplement with particular enzymes depending on their health condition or symptoms. It is best to refer to our team at Healthy Connections to determine which digestive enzymes are best for you, as many conditions overlap each other and have underlying causes that require a different approach.
- Those with gallbladder issues or liver disease would benefit from taking bile salts and lipase enzymes.
- Hypochlorhydria and GERD can be addressed by taking pepsin enzymes along with betaine HCL. These are usually combined together into one supplement.
- Those who have trouble digesting fiber in plant foods may benefit from taking pectinase or cellulase enzymes.
- Lactose intolerance can be helped by taking lactase enzymes.
- Glucose intolerance can include symptoms such as low blood sugar, cortisol imbalance, and issues with mental and emotional health. People can benefit from taking amylase and maltase enzymes, which work to break down starch into glucose.
- Symptoms related to the digestion of beans and other legumes can be helped by taking the enzyme, alpha-galactosidase. This is the enzyme found in the brand name, Beano.
- Those with trouble digesting protein, including the casein from dairy products, can benefit from protease enzymes.
- If you have pancreatic issues, IBD, or celiac disease, it is best to supplement with all three pancreatic enzymes (amylase, protease, and lipase). This blend is found in pancreatin supplements.
Other times it is appropriate to supplement with a full-spectrum enzyme blend to help digest all food components. Complete digestion and absorption of nutrients has a positive cascading effect on the health of our entire body. Furthermore, it is well established that all chronic diseases begin in the gut. Therefore, maximizing our overall gut health should be of top priority, and digestive enzymes are one way to get us there. Those with hypothyroid, digestive disorders, gastrointestinal symptoms, autoimmune disease, inflammation, and other conditions often need such an all-encompassing blend of enzymes.
Make sure that the supplement you select is free of cheap fillers and additives and includes a diversity of enzymes meant for digesting carbs, proteins, and fats. Each enzyme listed on the label should include a measure of potency. Instead of seeing units listed as grams or milligrams, you’ll see units such as DU, LU, CU, HUT, DP, and more. These units indicate which lab test was run to determine potency, but are not important to consumers. Rather, the important thing is to choose enzyme supplements that have these units listed, as this indicates a high-quality supplement. Low-quality supplements will not list potency on the label. It is best to take enzyme supplements with every meal, either with your first bite of food or about 10 minutes before eating.
Enzymes From Food:
As mentioned earlier, not only do our bodies produce digestive enzymes but we also obtain them from the very foods we’re digesting. Plant foods and fermented foods naturally contain their own enzymes that, when eaten, aid in breaking down that food.
When it comes to plant foods, be aware that when fruits and vegetables are highly processed or were grown in nutrient-depleted soil, many of their enzymes are lacking or even destroyed. To increase your enzymes from plant foods, it’s best to eat them raw and ensure they were grown in nutrient-rich soil (choosing organic produce is your best bet to ensure this).
Regarding fermented foods, digestive enzymes are not the only digestive aid they contain. Fermented foods also contain probiotics, which work synergistically with digestive enzymes. Probiotics restore the balance of our gut bacteria, aid in digestion, and improve our absorption of nutrients.
Digestive enzymes are found in:
- Raw honey
- Bee pollen
- Kefir and yogurt
- Fermented soy products (miso, tempeh, soy sauce, and natto)
- Sauerkraut and kimchi
Digestive enzymes are critical to gut health. They break down our food into smaller compounds, thus allowing individual nutrients to be absorbed and utilized by our body. Several health conditions and symptoms can lower our production of digestive enzymes and exacerbate these issues. Digestive disorders in particular are a common sign of insufficient enzyme production. Low production is also related to a variety of other health issues. Taking digestive enzymes as a supplement can greatly reduce various symptoms as well as improve health conditions. Digestive enzymes are also found in various foods that can be incorporated into the diet. Talk with our team at Healthy Connections to determine whether digestive enzymes would be helpful for you. Schedule a free Discovery Call today!