Digestive Enzymes: What are they? Do I need them?
If you have digestive issues and struggle breaking down certain foods, sometimes taking digestive enzymes can be a big help. They can even be very helpful for inflammation as well.
I also often use digestive enzymes in my cleanse protocols because it helps to ease the stress of the digestive system while it’s trying to heal.
But sometimes using enzymes can just be helping you to forget that you have a digestive imbalance that needs to be healed.
Find out what are digestive enzymes, how you can use them, what possible interactions there could be, and even other ways to use enzyme for healing.
What are digestive enzymes?
Technically, “enzymes” are compounds that help critical biochemical reactions to happen in your body. These reactions can be anything, from making neurotransmitters like serotonin, to burning food for energy, to breaking down food we eat into smaller pieces that our guts can absorb.
Oh, and they all end with “ase”. Well almost…
Digestive enzymes are specifically those enzymes we use for digestion. They’re enzymes that our digestive system naturally makes and secretes when we eat.
Now, all of the “macronutrients” we eat (carbs, protein & fat) need to be broken down into their individual (smaller) parts so that we can properly absorb and digest them. They’re just too big otherwise, and if we don’t absorb them properly, we can get symptoms of fatigue, malnutrition, digestive distress, or a host of other symptoms.
It is these individual (smaller) parts that our body amazingly rearranges and uses to create other larger molecules that our body needs.
The most common digestive enzymes you’ll see on product labels are:
● Amylase - Helps to break down starch/carbs into its simple sugars.
● Lactase - Helps to break down lactose into its sugars.
● Protease - Helps to break down protein into its amino acids.
● Bromelain and/or Papain - Help to break down protein into its amino acids.
● Lipase - Helps to break down fats into its lipids.
● alpha-Galactosidase - Helps to break down specific “fermentable carbohydrates” into its sugars.
Who should consider taking digestive enzymes?
I would always recommend that you see a qualified health care practitioner for an expert opinion on whether your issues can be related to digestion, and which, if any, supplements can help you.
In general, the most common digestive symptoms that enzymes *may* help with are bloating, cramping, and/or diarrhea. Particularly if it happens after eating certain foods (think lactose-intolerance symptoms after eating dairy). You can read more on this topic on my last post HERE.
One reason for these symptoms can be that food particles are not broken down properly, and the larger pieces travel further down the digestive tract to the microbiota where our natural flora and bacteria start breaking them down themselves.
Obviously, our bacteria breaking down our food is ideal and one of their main functions. However, if the pieces of food are too big or they’re digesting too slowly, the bacteria must work extra hard and this creates a lot of off gasses. And this can definitely be troublesome for some people.
Other uses for enzymes
Enzymes taken away from your meals can have great healing effects on your whole body. These types would be proteolytic enzymes (protein enzymes).
When taken on an empty stomach, proteolytic enzymes will digest protein-based foreign bodies. So in your gut with a meal they function as digestive aids, but in your blood they act as cleansers that combat inflammation and help to rebalance your immune system.
Part of their function is to break down the excess fibrin in your body and help eliminate metabolic waste produced by inflammation and this excess of fibrin.
The three most commonly known proteolytic enzymes are pepsin, bromelain and papain. Pepsin is naturally produced by the intestines while bromelain and papain are food enzymes found in pineapple and papaya, respectively.
Incorporating a proteolytic enzyme can be very helpful for anyone with an autoimmune disease, muscle or join pain, or even healing from surgery amongst many others and it helps to reduce the inflammation and eat away and access immune complexes not serving the body or even creating an overactive system in the case of autoimmunity.
I've just started to take a protein based enzyme away from meals. I'm getting some blood work done in about 2 months to see if I can reduce some antibodies I have. I'll keep you posted on my progress!
What do I need to know? - Medical conditions
Of course, you should read the label of any products you take, and take them as directed, especially if they’re not specifically recommended for you by your health care practitioner who knows your history.
Here are two critical things to be aware of:
1 – If you are diabetic or pregnant, depending on your medical history, symptoms, and sugar metabolism, be careful with digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates into sugars.
This is because taking them breaks down more carbohydrates into sugars than your body normally would; so, anyone at risk of blood sugar issues should take caution.
2 - When it comes to enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids, there are a few people who should avoid them because of potential interactions. That is if you have an ulcer, or are taking blood-thinners or anti-inflammatories, or if you’re having surgery.
The reason is because the digestive enzymes that break down protein are thought to cause or worsen ulcers, as well as have the ability to “thin” the blood and prevent normal clotting.
What do I need to know? - Possible Side effects
If you feel the need to use digestive enzyme supplements with every meal or for a prolonged period of time, you might want to follow up with a knowledgeable practitioner.
Boosting your natural digestive powers, removing food sensitivities, and even eating more mindfully can all be options that help improve your digestive efficiency. You could even have an intolerance to specific enzymes which could explain why you’re lacking them. For more information on improving your gut health, check out my blog post about it here.
If you find that your symptoms get worse taking a digestive enzyme, or even if they don’t get better, you should probably stop using them.
Allergies are always a possibility with any supplements, so if you know or suspect you’re allergic to one of the ingredients listed, then you should avoid them.
For the most part, what I've observed in my 5.5yrs of practice is that digestive enzymes have low or no side effects.
Before considering a digestive enzyme supplement
My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax more, eat slower, and chew more thoroughly. This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract.
The second step would be to try eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet (dairy & gluten, for example) and see if that helps.
I’ve also put together a list of the Top 10 Foods to Avoid and Top 10 Food to Include to Beat the Bloat. You can download the list HERE.
What to look for?
When you’re looking on what enzymes you should buy, there are a million options, I know!
My advise to you would be to look for a broad range of enzymes that cover all your basis. So that would include a carb/starch enzyme like amylase, a protein enzyme like protease, and a fat enzyme like protease or even betain HCl. Often, they’ll also include a lactase for the lactose milk sugar.
If you’re looking for a proteolytic enzyme, look for ones that mostly contains protein based enzymes such as pepsin, bromelain and papain.
If you have digestive issues and struggle breaking down certain foods, taking digestive enzymes can be a big help. I also often use digestive enzymes in my cleanse protocols because it helps to ease the stress of the digestive system while it’s trying to heal.
But the goal would be to heal the digestive system and improve your overall digestive strength and only use supplements for special occasions.
So, think of those times when you’re eating out whether that’s at a restaurant, a wedding, someone’s house, those are great times to use enzymes because getting into digestive distress when you’re not in the comfort of your own home can be uncomfortable to say the least.
But in general, especially if you know your struggle to break down certain foods, taking enzymes can become a crutch or even a reason to not switch up your diet.
If you’re using them daily this is a sign you might want to eliminate the foods that you’re eating that require you to need the enzyme or look into the health of your digestive tract. There most likely is some healing that needs to be done!
If you’re curious if you should try digestive enzyme or even proteolytic type enzymes, reach out and I can help guide you on what products would work best for your health goals and struggles.
Looking for more information? Make sure to sign up for my free 30 min consultation to get your Whole Body Health Profile to see what underlying problem could be affecting your health.
Natural Medicines Database, Bromelain, Papain, Retrieved January 21, 2017 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com