Not everyone should be taking digestive enzyme supplements, and not all of them are created equal.
As a practitioner, most of my clients experience some sort of digestive issue. This isn’t surprising as food is my profession and the inability to effectively digest food can create a whole host of problems.
For instance, 70% of your immunity resides in your digestive tract, so if your tummy is troubled, you are more susceptible to catching cold/flu. And get this … your digestive tract contains over 100 million neurons – that’s more than your spinal column. These neurons can influence hormonal balance and mood. These are some of the reasons why your “gut” is called your second brain.
In this age of health media, I find that many people try to self-prescribe digestive supplements as a cure to their digestive issues. Yet few understand what they’re taking or why – and that some supplements can be harmful.
So, let’s dive into a few of the common digestive enzymes, what they do, who should take them, and who shouldn't.
What are digestive enzymes?
Many people don’t understand the digestive process. They know they eat food and the body “digests” it, but what does that really mean?
In order for your body to properly digest and absorb food, it first needs to break down “macronutrients” (carbs, protein and fat) into individual (smaller) parts. It is these individual, smaller parts that your body amazingly rearranges and uses to create other molecules that your body needs to thrive.
If you don’t properly break down your macronutrients into these smaller parts, you don’t properly absorb the nutrients you’re eating, and you can experience symptoms of fatigue, malnutrition, digestive distress (gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, stomach pains), weight gain (or loss) and other problems.
Digestive enzymes are compounds that help facilitate the digestive process – the breaking down and absorption of food.
Digestive enzymes kick-start a cascade of critical biochemical reactions in your body. They help your body break down food so that you can make important neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin and thyroid, and create molecules your body can use for energy, repair and growth.
Digestive enzymes are produced at various points along the digestive tract. Your salivary glands produce enzymes that break down carbohydrates. Your stomach releases acids that break down protein and trigger the release of other intestinal enzymes. Your small intestine releases enzymes to complete this process, helping further break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates so they can be absorbed.
There are also various organs and glands involved with the process – your stomach, pancreas, gallbladder and liver are the most common. Each produce very specific enzymes with very specific jobs.
What are common digestive enzymes?
All enzymes end with “ase.” The most common digestive enzymes you’ll see on product labels are:
Amylase - helps to break down starch into sugar (for energy)
Alpha-Galactosidase - helps to break down specific “fermentable carbohydrates” into sugar (for energy)
Lactase - helps to break down lactose into sugar (for energy)
Protease - Helps to break down protein into amino acids (the building blocks or structure of your body)
Bromelain and/or Papain - help to break down protein into amino acids (building blocks of your body)
Lipase - helps to break down fats into lipids (energy source and structure)
To complicate things, there is one digestive aid typically included with digestive enzymes that does not end in "ase" - that is hydrochloric acid, otherwise known as stomach acid or HCl. As explained, HCl has a key role in the digestion of protein and the release of intestinal enzymes.
People also don't realize that low stomach acid (HCl) is one of the key reasons for poor digestion. If you can't break down protein or have weak communications between your stomach and glands/organs that release digestive enzyme, you are going to experience problems. Chronic stress, a diet high in fat or sugar and the aging process are the three top reasons for low HCl levels.
5 people who should take digestive enzymes
I always recommend that you see a qualified health care practitioner for an expert opinion on whether your issues are related to digestion, and which (if any) supplements can help you.
Here are five common reasons to take digestive enzymes.
Bloating, cramping and/or diarrhea are the most common ailments that enzymes can help with, particularly if these symptoms appear after eating certain foods (think lactose intolerance).
If you have chronic stress in your life (physical/emotional), you would also benefit. STRESS depletes stomach acid, which is critical in kick-starting the digestive cascade of enzymes in the intestines.
Diets high in fat/sugar also deplete stomach acid, making it difficult to absorb the good foods you’re eating.
As we age, we naturally produce less stomach acid (HCl) which is one of the reasons why seniors require B12 supplements. Stomach acid triggers the release of the intrinsic factor in the stomach, which binds to B12 in the small intestines for absorption.
If you have had your gallbladder removed, you need additional support for fat absorption because your body is not releasing as much bile into the system as it used to. Fat is important for the absorption of fat soluble vitamines (A, D, E, K).
2 people who shouldn't take enzymes - medical conditions
If you have diabetes or are pregnant/breast feeding:
Digestive enzymes can break down more carbohydrates into sugars than your body normally would. Anyone at risk of blood sugar issues should take caution.
If you have an ulcer, take blood thinners or anti-inflammatories, or if you’re having sugery (pre/post):
Digestive enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids can have interactions. Ingredients like HCl and protease can worsen ulcers and have the ability to “thin” the blood and prevent normal blood clotting.
How to improve digestion
Have you tried improving your digestion without suppplements?
My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax while eating (put on music, visualize), 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 eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet (dairy and gluten, for example). Please see my previous blog on how to effectively test.
If you decide to try digestive enzymes, PLEASE read the label of any products you take, and take them as directed. This is incredibly important if they are not specifically recommended for you by your health care practitioner, who knows your complete health history.
The length of time you should take enzymes depends on your situation. Some conditions are short-term (3 to 4 months), while others require long term support. Using digestive enzyme supplements for a prolonged period of time justifies an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner. You shouldn’t just jump to supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis, and trying a few strategies first.
While many supplements are safe products, they’re not all for everyone. I recommend that you:
Read your labels carefully (who should take them, how to take them, when to stop taking them).
If you have a medical condition or are taking medications, please speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
If you want expert advice on whether a specific supplement is for you, speak with a qualified health care practitioner.
Natural Medicines Database, Bromelain, Papain, Retrieved January 21, 2017 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com