The phrase “you are what you eat” is halfway accurate. The real truth is: You are what you digest. Therefore, are digestive enzymes key to better digestion, gut health and nutrient absorption?
Surprising as it may seem, up until relatively recently, little was known about how your digestive system actually works. Today, there’s a growing incidence of illnesses that, when traced back to the source, appear to be linked to nutrient malabsorption due to a lack of digestive enzymes.
Why are enzymes for digestion important in avoiding illness? Essentially, they help break down larger molecules into more easily absorbed particles that the body can actually use to survive and thrive.
So do digestive enzymes really work? Why are they important? And what are the most effective digestive enzymes? Here’s what you need to know.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are a group of enzymes used by the body to break down macronutrients — such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins — into their individual components to ensure proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. Older adults and people with certain health conditions and digestive problems often lack in the key digestive enzymes needed by the body.
What are the main digestive enzymes? They are split into three main classes:
- Proteolytic enzymes that are needed to metabolize proteins.
- Lipases needed to digest fats.
- Amylases needed to break down carbohydrates.
Below is an overview of the six-step digestive process, starting with chewing, that triggers digestive enzymes secretion in your digestive tract:
- Salivary amylase released in the mouth is the first digestive enzyme to assist in digestion of molecules, and that process continues after food enters the stomach.
- The parietal cells of the stomach are then triggered into releasing acids, pepsin and other enzymes, including gastric amylase, and the process of degrading the partially digested food into chyme (a semifluid mass of partly digested food) begins.
- Stomach acid also has the effect of neutralizing the salivary amylase, allowing gastric amylase to take over.
- After an hour or so, the chyme is propelled into the duodenum, where acidity triggers the release of the hormone secretin.
- That, in turn, notifies the pancreas to release hormones, bicarbonate, bile and numerous pancreatic enzymes, of which the most relevant are lipase, trypsin, amylase and nuclease.
- The bicarbonate changes the acidity of the chyme from acid to alkaline, which has the effect of not only allowing the enzymes to degrade food, but also killing bacteria that are not capable of surviving in the acid environment.
At this point, for people without digestive enzyme insufficiency (lack of digestive enzymes), most of the work is done. For others, supplementation is needed and helps this process along.
So what are the best digestive enzymes? Each type of digestive enzyme plays a specific role in the digestion and absorption of nutrients in the body.
Here are 10 of the best digestive enzymes, plus how each one functions in the body:
- Amylase: Found primarily in the saliva, amylase helps break down starches into simple sugars to facilitate digestion.
- Alpha-galactosidase: Needed to break down starchy, hard-to-digest foods, including gas-causing ingredients like beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
- Cellulase: Responsible for the digestion of cellulose, a type of fiber found in the cell wall of many types of plants.
- Glucoamylase: Helps break the bonds of common dietary starches to help form simple carbohydrates.
- Invertase: Aids in the hydrolysis of sucrose, or table sugar, into fructose and glucose.
- Lactase: Catalyzes the breakdown of lactose, which is a type of sugar found in milk and milk products.
- Lipase: An enzyme produced by the pancreas that helps your body digest and absorb fats.
- Peptidase: Responsible for splitting peptide protein chains into individual amino acids.
- Phytase: Facilitates the digestion of phytic acid, which is a natural compound found in plant seeds as well as nuts, whole grains and legumes.
- Protease: Helps break long chains of proteins into smaller units known as amino acids.
1. Boost Nutrient Absorption
Even if you follow a healthy, well-rounded diet, it’s unlikely to make much of an impact if your body is unable to properly extract the nutrients from your food.
Digestive enzymes can help enhance nutrient absorption by supplying your body with the enzymes it needs to fully break down what you put on your plate. Not only can this help prevent nutritional deficiencies, but it may also potentially help boost energy levels, enhance immune function and optimize overall health.
2. Support Digestive Health
One of the top digestive enzymes benefits is its ability to support digestive health by keeping your gastrointestinal system running smoothly. It may also aid in the treatment of common issues like leaky gut. Leaky gut is a condition characterized by decreased intestinal permeability, resulting in increased inflammation as particles and toxins flow from the intestines into the bloodstream.
Supplementing with some of the best digestive enzymes for leaky gut could help optimize nutrient digestion to decrease inflammation and irritation of the gut lining. This can preserve intestinal permeability to prevent symptoms.
3. Prevent Gas and Bloating
Certain enzymes like alpha-galactosidase, lactase and cellulase are often considered some of the best digestive enzymes for IBS as well as the best digestive enzymes for gas, bloating and stomach pain. All three types help break down specific foods that are difficult for many to digest, including legumes, fiber-rich veggies and dairy products.
If you commonly experience adverse side effects after consuming these foods, taking a digestive enzyme may be a good option to decrease bloating and gas.
4. May Reduce Symptoms of Acid Reflux
Gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD, is a common condition that often causes symptoms like acid reflux, heartburn and regurgitation. Digestive enzymes can help speed up the emptying of the stomach, which could prevent the backsplash of acid into the esophagus to reduce acid reflux.
Although there is limited research available on the effectiveness of digestive enzymes for acid reflux, it may be a beneficial addition to your routine alongside diet and lifestyle modifications.
Who Needs Digestive Enzymes?
People who experience symptoms like bloating, gas, abdominal pain and fatigue due to undigested foods may benefit from a digestive enzymes supplement. Other signs that you might lack digestive enzymes include:
- Acid reflux
- Dyspepsia (pain or an uncomfortable feeling in the upper middle part of your stomach area)
- 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
People with the following health conditions can likely experience some relief from taking a digestive enzyme supplement:
1. Digestive Diseases
If you have any type of digestive disease — such as acid reflux, gas, bloating, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, malabsorption, diarrhea or constipation — then digestive enzymes may be able to help.
They can help take stress off of the digestive organs and decrease symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating that are associated with gastrointestinal disease.
2. Age-Related Enzyme Insufficiency
As we age, the acidity of our stomach acid becomes more alkaline, and this can prevent enough pancreatic secretions from being released.
Concurrent illnesses aside, as we age there’s increasing suspicion that digestive problems may result from either low stomach acid or digestive enzyme insufficiency, which are thought to be common causes of acid reflux.
Hypochlorhydria (having too little stomach acid) makes it hard for minerals, vitamins and nutrients to be “cleaved” or released from food while in the GI tract, and if this action fails, then nutritional insufficiency is usually the result.
4. Liver Disease and Other Enzyme-Related Illnesses
Anyone with liver disease should be suspected as having a concurrent enzyme insufficiency. One of the more common conditions is known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder that affects roughly one in 1,500 people worldwide.
Symptoms that may be experienced include unintentional weight loss, recurring respiratory infections, fatigue and rapid heartbeats.
There illnesses (that may at first diagnosis appear unrelated to low digestive enzymes production) include:
Other symptomatic indicators of enzymatic insufficiency are:
- Stool changes — If the stool is pale and floats in the toilet bowl or if it’s greasy or fatty.
- Gastrointestinal complaints — Stomach distention and diarrhea, especially around an hour after eating. Flatulence and indigestion are also indicative.
5. Pancreatic Insufficiency
Pancreatic insufficiency is the inability of the pancreas to secrete the enzymes needed for digestion. This is a common problem among people with pancreatic cancer.
Prescription pancreatic enzyme products (also called called replacement therapy) may be used in patients with pancreatic cancer, chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis and after surgery on the gut to help promote healing.
Natural Sources (Foods)
Many raw plants, such as raw fruits and vegetables, contain enzymes that aid in their digestion.
Raw fruits and vegetables grown in nutrient-rich soils are the best natural sources of digestive enzymes, so make sure to buy more of these when you shop for groceries:
- Kefir and yogurt
- Miso, soy sauce and tempeh (fermented soy products)
- Sauerkraut and kimchi
- Bee pollen
- Apple cider vinegar
- Raw honey
Digestive enzyme supplements are derived mostly from three sources:
- Fruit-sourced — usually pineapple– or papaya-based. Bromelain is an enzyme derived from pineapple that breaks down a broad spectrum of proteins, has anti-inflammatory properties and can withstand a broad pH (acidic/alkaline) range. Papain is another enzyme that’s derived from raw papaya and works well to support the breakdown of small and large proteins.
- Animal-sourced — including pancreatin sourced from ox or hog.
- Plant-sourced — derived from probiotics, yeast and fungi.
Because proteins, sugars, starches and fats all require specific types of enzymes, it’s best to take a supplement that covers all the bases.
Many experts feel that the best digestive enzymes in supplement form are those that contain a full-spectrum blend intended for general digestive improvement. Look for a supplement that includes a variety of enzymes, including some of the following (price may vary depending on the supplement you purchase):
- Alpha-galactosidase (this is the enzyme found in Beano®, derived from Aspergillus niger, which is said to help with carbohydrate digestion)
- Amylase (produced by the salivary glands)
- Malt diastase
- Protease (or acid proteases)
Here are some tips for purchasing digestive enzymes based on your symptoms and current health:
- If you have gallbladder issues and are looking for a gallbladder natural treatment, purchase one with more lipase and bile salts.
- Where you see betaine HCL listed as a product ingredient, make sure pepsin is also included.
- Others contain lactase, which until recently was only available as an individual product. This enzyme is designed to assist those with specific issues relating to sugar absorption from dairy products.
- Consider a supplement that contains protease, which helps with protein digestion, if you have an autoimmune or inflammatory condition.
- Choose a blend with herbs, such as peppermint and ginger, that also support digestion.
- Also, because some people need more pancreatic enzymes than others, you need to bear in mind the level of each is dependent on your needs. Most products contain some level of pancreatin, which is a combination of all three pancreatic enzymes.
Are vegan digestive enzymes supplements available?
Some products contain only plant-based enzymes, which are aimed at vegetarians and vegans. These usually at least contain bromelain derived from the pineapple, and many include papain enzyme from the papaya.
Products designed specifically for vegans usually contain pancreatin derived from Aspergillus niger. This is a fungus-based, fermented product rather than an enzyme sourced from ox or hog bile, which is the usual source.
In addition, some have complementary herbs and spices. Amla (gooseberry) extract — which isn’t an enzyme, but an herbal remedy from Ayurveda medicine taken for general well-being — is often included. It’s believed to work in synergy with the other compounds.
When should you take digestive enzymes?
For optimal results, take digestive enzymes about 10 minutes before each meal or with your first bite. Protease supplements can be taken in between meals in addition to digestive enzymes with meals.
Start by taking enzymes with about two meals per day, and adjust your dosage as needed as the days move on.
Can you take probiotics and digestive enzymes at the same time?
Yes. Take enzymes before a meal and probiotics after or between.
It’s also beneficial to get probiotics from fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, kimchi or sauerkraut. Probiotics can help restore balance to the gut microbiome and further aid in digestion, while also curbing symptoms like gas and bloating.
Risks and Side Effects
Can digestive enzymes be harmful? Depending on your health condition, your healthcare professional can determine which are the safest and best digestive enzymes for you to take. If you have a history of liver or gallbladder disease, or ulcers, then consult your healthcare professional before taking supplements.
What are potential digestive enzymes side effects? While they are generally well-tolerated and helpful, side effects can sometimes include:
- abdominal cramping
- changes in blood sugar
- allergic reactions
- abnormal feces
If you suffer these symptoms, don’t continue to take them, and consult with your healthcare professional.
You’re most likely to deal with digestive enzymes side effects if you take a very high dose and ignore dosage recommendations, so always read product labels carefully.
- Digestive enzymes help us digest foods by breaking down large macromolecules into smaller molecules that our guts are capable of absorbing.
- Digestive enzymes are split into three classes: proteolytic enzymes, lipases and amylases, which all metabolize different macronutrients.
- People who can benefit from taking digestive enzyme supplements include those with inflammatory bowel disease, IBS, low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria), enzyme insufficiency, pancreatic insufficiency, autoimmune diseases, constipation, diarrhea and bloating.
- Digestive enzyme supplement sources include fruits (especially pineapple and papaya), animals like ox or hog, and plant sources like probiotics, yeast and fungi. It’s best to get a supplement that covers all the bases (a full-spectrum enzyme blend).
- Foods that can continue to provide you with natural digestive enzymes include pineapple, papaya, kiwi, fermented dairy, mango, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, avocado, bee pollen, apple cider vinegar and raw honey.