Digestion is finally having its day in the sun. The gut is being recognized for its importance in aiding overall health and everyone’s hearing about the benefits of probiotics (the “good bacteria” that live in our GI tracts) and prebiotics (the fiber they feed on). However, they’re not the only players in healthy digestion. Digestive enzymes also play a key role. Here, everything you need to know about these mighty little tummy helpers.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes play a seriously significant role in our overall health. These compounds chemically break the protein, fat, and carbohydrates we eat into particles our body can actually absorb and use for nutrients and energy.
“Think of digestive enzymes as little soldiers with scissors that cut large food molecules into smaller pieces,” says Anthony Balduzzi, N.M.D., founder of The Fit Father Project and The Fit Mother Project. “Our digestive tract can’t absorb large food particles, so we need to cut these large proteins, carbs, and fats into smaller units that can pass through the microscopic holes in the digestive tract and enter our blood circulation.”
In addition to our stomach, our mouth, pancreas, and small intestine also produce and release digestive enzymes when we eat.
How Digestion Works
There are about 22 enzymes that help us digest food, all of which fall into one of three categories: Enzymes that break down proteins are called proteases, those that break down carbs are called amylases, and those that break down fats are called lipases.
Digestive enzymes first start working their magic in our mouths, after our first bite of food.
As food enters our mouth, our salivary glands release amylases to start breaking down any carbohydrates into smaller sugar molecules (called monosaccharides).
“If you’ve ever put a cracker in your mouth and felt it dissolve into sugar and then nothing, you’ve experienced amylase at work,” says John M. Rivas, M.D., founder of Rivas Digestive Center in Florida.
Our mouths also release a small amount of lipases to start breaking down any fats into smaller fat molecules (called monoglycerides).
Related: 5 Steps To A Happier, Healthier Gut
Once we swallow our food, our stomach releases more lipases and proteases, which begin to break proteins down into smaller building blocks (called amino acids).
“When food enters the intestines, the small intestines tell the pancreas to release more digestive enzymes,” says Rivas. Here, the process continues until the majority of the essential food nutrients have been broken down.
Once broken down, these nutrients are absorbed through the wall of the small intestine and into our bloodstream to be put to use. Anything left over exits our bodies as fecal matter hours later.
Without digestive enzymes, we wouldn’t be able to properly digest our food. And if we can’t digest our food, we can’t utilize their nutrients, which we need to do pretty much everything.
Who May Need More Digestive Enzymes?
According to Rivas, most of us produce enough digestive enzymes on our own to efficiently and comfortably break down the food we eat. That said, some of us might struggle in the enzyme department—and want to consider taking digestive enzyme supplements.
First: folks with health conditions that affect the pancreas’ ability to manufacture or secrete digestive enzymes. The most common include chronic pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, alcoholism that develops into pancreatitis, and pancreatic insufficiency.
People with cystic fibrosis, who often deal with pancreatic insufficiency, are usually in the same boat, explains Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Another group that might benefit from digestive enzyme supplements: folks with food intolerances. While it’s best just to avoid foods you don’t tolerate well, taking enzymes comes in handy on special occasions, when you just can’t walk away from the cheese plate.
“One of the most famous digestive enzymes is lactase, the enzyme required to break down the sugar in milk,” explains Balduzzi. Lactose intolerant people can swallow a lactase pill to help break down any milk sugars in their system. Taking enzymes can also benefit people with gluten sensitivities who want to enjoy a slice of birthday cake without facing all-out digestive rebellion afterwards.
Plus, since we naturally produce fewer digestive enzymes as we age, many of us might consider supplementing with digestive enzymes if we begin to notice more regular digestive woes. (Factors like genetics affect just when this starts to happen.)
Signs Of Digestive Enzyme Deficiency
Not sure if your digestive enzymes are working in full force? Enzyme deficiencies typically result in all sorts of gastrointestinal distress, such as:
- consistent gas
- a feeling of immediate fullness after eating just a bite or two
- perpetual stomach aches
- loose stools
In extreme cases, people who are digestive enzyme-deficient can experience serious symptoms of malnutrition, such as:
- unexplained rapid weight loss
- weak or unhealthy skin and hair
- weakened bones
- constant fatigue
If you’re experiencing any symptoms, it’s time for a trip to the doctor. They’ll rule out other health conditions that could be causing your symptoms or compromising your digestive enzyme production. Typically, your doc will test your pancreatic enzyme levels or take a stool sample to collect more info.
Finding A Digestive Enzyme Supplement
While people with serious health conditions like cystic fibrosis or a pancreatic condition typically need prescription digestive enzyme medications, many folks can benefit from a dietary supplement.
Balduzzi recommends looking for an enzyme product that includes the enzyme trifecta: proteases, amylases, and lipases. Typically, products labeled ‘multi-enzyme’ contain the full spectrum. The Vitamin Shoppe brand Digest Extra, for example, contains more than a dozen different digestive enzymes for overall support.
Plus, “many quality digestive enzymes will also include an active probiotic, a specialized enzyme for milk sugars called lactase and an enzyme for gluten called ASP,” says Balduzzi. (To reap the benefits of both enzymes and probiotics, try Enzymedica Digest Gold + Probiotics.)
When shopping, you’ll notice that some digestive enzyme supplements are derived from animals, while others are derived from plants. While animal-derived enzymes are the most similar to those our body produces, plant-based enzymes are a fine option for herbivores, says Valdez.
Best Practices For Supplementing
Digestive enzymes aren’t like multivitamins that you pop just once per day. If you want them to work their magic, you’ve got to take them with every meal.
“Drink a small glass of water and take the enzyme with the first few bites of the meal to ensure that the food you’re eating and the enzymes hit the digestive tract at the same time,” says Rivas.
You should notice an immediate difference: less gas, fewer stomach aches and cramps, reduced bloating, and more shapely stools.
If you don’t find GI relief after a week of supplementing, Valdez recommends heading back to your doctor, who can either write you a prescription enzyme or investigate if other gut issues are at the root of your symptoms.
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