As a practitioner, I find that many people with digestive issues want to jump straight into using a supplement. And many times I would rather try other strategies first. Not to mention, that some supplements can be harmful if used inappropriately.
So, let’s dive into a few of the common digestive enzymes, what they do, and who should NOT take them.
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 most of them end with “ase”.
But the function of enzymes is not limited to just digestion. They are necessary for most cellular functions and biological processes. Enzymes – proteins composed of amino acids- are secreted by our body to catalyze functions that normally would not occur at body temperature, making them vital to good health and longevity.
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.
The most common digestive enzymes you’ll see on product labels are:
- Amylase – Helps to break down starch into its sugars.
- alpha-Galactosidase – Helps to break down specific “fermentable carbohydrates” into its 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.
The sources of enzymes
As it was mentioned our body naturally secretes enzymes. Unfortunately, this function decreases as we age. For example, as research shows, young people have 30 times more amylase in their saliva than 69 -year-olds, and 27-year-old have twice the amount of lipase as 77-year-olds. Chronically ill people also have lower levels of enzymes.
Fortunately, optimizing your enzymes is easy with eating plenty of raw (uncooked/unprocessed) food and fermented food. Sprouts are an excellent source of live enzymes.
Enzyme supplements are derived either from plants or animals. For example, enzymes can be extracted from fungi and bacteria, raw foods such as bromelain from pineapple, papain from papaya. Pancreatic enzymes such as pepsin and trypsin are obtained from animal sources.
Who can benefit from taking digestive enzyme supplements?
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).
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 those little critters start breaking them down themselves. And this is definitely troublesome for certain people. In such case taking the right digestive enzymes can help reducing or eliminating the unpleasant condition.
Another reason to supplement with enzymes is age. As we age our body’s production of enzymes decreases, approximately by 13 percent every decade. So, if you are 40 you produce 25 percent fewer enzymes compared to children. By the age of 70, you may be producing only one third enzymes needed for good digestion and health.
There’s a number of special health conditions that require a consultation with a health care practitioner before taking digestive enzyme supplements:
- Food sensitivity
- High level of toxicity
- Acute or chronic illness, including digestive problems, high blood sugar, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, stress-related problems, arthritis, and inflammatory conditions.
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 – Digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates into sugars are not recommended for diabetics or pregnant/breastfeeding women.
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
Using digestive enzyme supplements for a prolonged period of time may well justify an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner. There may be strategies other than daily supplementation that can serve you better.
If you find that your symptoms get worse, or even if they don’t get better, you should probably stop using them.
Allergies are always a possibility, so if you know or suspect you’re allergic, then you should avoid them.
And, as always, keep supplements away from children.
Before considering a digestive enzyme supplement
You shouldn’t just jump to supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis, or trying a few strategies first.
My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax more, eat slower, and chew more thoroughly. Saliva contains amylase which helps to break down carbohydrates and can put less stress on your digestive tract.
The second step would be to include more raw and/or fermented food in your menu. Broccoli, dark leafy greens, cabbage, sprouts – all are excellent sources of enzymes. Bromelain contains in fresh pineapple and papain in papaya.
The third step – try eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet (dairy & gluten, for example) and see if that helps.
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, 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 and/or nutritionist.
Recipe: Tropical (digestive) smoothie (with bromelain & papain)
1 cup pineapple, diced
1 cup papaya, diced
1 banana, chopped
1 cup coconut milk
ice if desired
Put all ingredients(except ice) into the blender and blend. Add ice if desired.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: The levels of enzymes in whole pineapple and papaya aren’t as concentrated as taking them in a supplement; so if you’re not allergic to these delicious fruits, you can try this smoothie.
Natural Medicines Database, Bromelain, Papain, Retrieved January 21, 2017 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com