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which digestive enzyme is best: eating lunch in lap

Which Digestive Enzyme Is Best For You?

Fatigue, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation—the signs of poor digestion are numerous, not to mention uncomfortable. If you struggle with gut-related health issues, one tactic you may have considered is adding digestive enzymes to your wellness routine. These synthetic versions of enzymes that naturally occur in the digestive tract are intended to promote more efficient digestion. “They contain specific components to help break down food (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins),” explains integrative dietitian Christiane Matey, M.S.H.S., R.D., of MINT Nutrition. “They also help us maximize nutrient absorption.”

Common enzymes include lipase, lactase, amylase, protease, maltase, and betaine hydrochloric acid, according to Matey. That’s a lot of enzymes to keep straight, so how do you know which one is right for you? We’re breaking it down (see what we did there?) below.

  • ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Christiane Matey, M.S.H.S., R.D., is an integrative dietitian with MINT Nutrition. Grace Clark-Hibbs, M.D.A., R.D.N., is a gut health expert, registered dietitian, and founder of Nutrition with Grace.

Who Should Consider Taking Digestive Enzymes?

Our bodies create digestive enzymes on their own—and often do a great job at making enough—so not everyone needs additional support from supplements. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the best digestive enzymes are the ones we make naturally, and they work optimally when we eat a diet full of whole foods.

That said, research from 2016 concluded that supplemental digestive enzymes could play an important therapeutic role in digestive and malabsorptive health issues such as lactose intolerance. In fact, prescription-grade digestive enzymes actually exist for use in people with the condition exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), explains gut health expert and registered dietitian Grace Clark-Hibbs, M.D.A., R.D.N., of Nutrition with Grace. If you have EPI, your doctor may prescribe pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), a medication that includes amylase, lipase, and protease.

Read More: How To Tweak Your Diet And Daily Routine If You Have A Sensitive Stomach

Still, even people without these issues may benefit from over-the-counter digestive enzymes, Matey suggests. “We are in an era in which we do not take the time to eat mindfully,” she says. “When we are not mindful, the beginning of the natural digestion process gets skipped and our enzymes run inefficiently. [This] can wreak havoc on the digestive system.” That’s right, slowing down and adequately chewing your food has a significant impact on digestion; the process of breaking down carbohydrates begins with the enzyme amylase in your mouth!

Not to mention, as we age, we don’t produce digestive enzymes as efficiently, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies, adds Matey. In her practice, she sees adults of all ages respond well to adding OTC digestive enzymes to their routine—and this is especially true among folks 65 and over.

How to Choose the Right Digestive Enzyme

So let’s say you’re dealing with bloating, diarrhea, gas, or another GI-related struggle and are curious about whether digestive enzymes could help things run more smoothly. As you stare down (or scroll through) a sea of digestive enzyme options, how do you know which one is right for you? Here’s how to get to the bottom of it. 

1. Observe Your Symptoms

Before you plunk down cash for a bottle of enzymes, Clark-Hibbs says it’s important to definitively identify what ails you. “Step one is to start paying close attention to the types of symptoms you’re experiencing and keep track of them in a notebook or on your phone for at least a couple of weeks,” she suggests. Note any digestive difficulties like bloating, heartburn, gas, diarrhea, constipation, or early satiety.

Though it might give you a little bit of the ick, one of the best places to look for signs of malabsorption is the toilet bowl. “Your daily BM can tell you a lot about what you need,” Matey says. “Seeing undigested food particles, ‘off’ colors in your stool like yellow or gray, or having floating, mushy, or greasy stools suggest the need for further evaluation.” Hair loss, brittle nails, fatigue, or lightheadedness can all also indicate poor nutrient absorption.

 2. Look for Patterns

Once you’ve pinpointed the symptoms you’d like to mitigate, you can begin to look for patterns. For example, do you tend to feel worse after a meal high in carbs? Are there certain types of foods, such as beans or dairy, that leave you gassy for hours? Put on your detective hat to identify any correlations between symptoms and specific foods, meal timing, or even stress levels.

This can be a great practice for identifying any food-related health issues—but Clark-Hibbs says it’s especially useful for teasing apart your digestive support needs. “It will help you determine what part of the digestive process is struggling, which allows you to pinpoint what type of enzymes you need.” 

3. Match Enzymes to Symptoms 

From protease to lactase to lipase, there’s a whole swath of digestive enzymes (and enzyme blends) out there. Research suggests that different ones may help troubleshoot different health issues. In some cases, you may be able to select the appropriate enzyme for your digestive woes on your own, but this may take some trial and error.

Read More: The Right Type of Gut Health Supplement for Every Goal 

For example, undigested food particles in the stool may indicate a need for pancreatic enzyme support, while gas production in the lower abdomen and bloating that increases throughout the day might point to insufficient brush border enzymes (which include sucrase-isomaltase, lactase, maltase-glucoamylase, and trehalase), explains Clark-Hibbs. 

Sensitivities to specific food groups, such as dairy, could also make for a relatively easy enzyme decision, she says. (People with lactose intolerance often simply require more lactase.) Beans are another potential trigger food with a correlating enzyme. Alpha-galactosidase may help you digest them with less gas.

Since navigating your choices can be tricky business, it’s best to enlist help from a professional like a dietitian, integrative medicine practitioner, or your primary care doc. They can help you match the right enzymes to your symptoms based on the latest clinical research, according to Matey. Be sure to take your food record to your appointment, and don’t hesitate to share any patterns you’ve sleuthed out with your provider. (The Vitamin Shoppe offers free nutrition coaching for its Healthy Awards members.)

4. Choose A Top-Notch Product

If your provider doesn’t suggest a specific brand of enzymes after pinpointing the type you need, it’s on you to do your homework to find a reputable product. Look for third-party testing seals from organizations like NSF, USP, or ConsumerLab, which tell you a product has been analyzed for safety and quality. “It’s also important to use your own discernment and question claims that seem too good to be true,” Clark-Hibbs adds.

As for dosing, ask your healthcare provider how much of an enzyme you should take based on your specific symptoms. Otherwise, simply follow printed instructions. “I recommend identifying a high-quality brand, trialing their recommended dose before each meal, tracking how you feel over a few weeks, and working with your provider to adjust from there as needed,” says Clark-Hibbs. 

A great place to start is The Vitamin Shoppe brand’s Digestive Enzymes.

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