Many factors contribute to digestive health—and digestive enzymes play an important role. Without ample properly functioning enzymes, optimal digestion becomes impossible, which then impacts your body and health in a number of ways.
Here’s the full breakdown of how digestive enzymes factor into the overall digestive process, why they’re so important, top indicators that you might benefit from supplementing with them, and what to look for when adding them to your routine.
Digestive Enzymes And Overall Digestive Function
Digestion is an “autonomic” process in your body, which means you don’t have to actually think about it for the body to act on it. In fact, once you begin to swallow your food, the digestive system just takes over.
During that process, proteins called digestive enzymes are secreted by the salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and small intestine. They break down large food molecules into smaller units that can be absorbed by the blood and into cells, which is how the body gets nourished from the food we eat.
For instance, when you eat, the enzymes lipase and amylase (which break down fats and carbs, respectively) in your saliva immediately get to work. As food moves along, it arrives at the duodenum where a digestive hormone named secretin is produced, signaling the pancreas to add more digestive enzymes—including trypsin, chymotrypsin, and pancreatin—to the mix. Other areas in the digestive system add even more enzymes, such as lactase and cellulase.
Read More: 15 Signs That Something Is Off With Your Gut
Digestive enzymes work to speed up the digestive process. In fact, without them, food molecules would break down far too slowly to be absorbed and leave the body without nourishment. Think of enzymes as the “match” that lights the fire of digestion—and you need to make enough of each necessary type to get the job done.
The truth is that every bodily cell, tissue, and organ depends on nutrient absorption, which depends on the proper assimilation of food through healthy digestion, which depends on digestive enzymes.
Reasons To Consider Supplementing With Digestive Enzymes
We previously believed that we had an endless supply of digestive enzymes. However, now we know that this isn’t the case. In fact, we now understand that everything from a diet high in processed foods, stress, and the natural aging process, to frequent air travel, living in extreme climates, and more impact digestive enzyme production.
Here are a number of indicators that you could benefit from a digestive enzyme supplement.
1. You Eat Mostly Cooked and/or Processed Foods
In addition to the digestive enzymes the body makes, raw, uncooked foods also contain digestive enzymes that help the body break them down so that their nutrients can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
The issue is, these food enzymes are destroyed when heated above temperatures of approximately 115 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit (which much of the food in our modern diet is!). Because we literally cook the enzymes in them to death, our digestive systems work harder to digest food. In fact, cooked foods can take up to two or three times longer to pass through the digestive system than raw foods.
The other issue here is highly processed food. These enzyme-dead products also tax your pancreas and other organs, placing them under stress and affecting their ability to function optimally.
One nationwide analysis of United States grocery purchases indicated that highly processed foods made up more than 60 percent of the calories purchased. In the analysis, “highly processed foods” included products like sodas, desserts, candy, and cookies. It didn’t include foods categorized as “minimally processed” (such as fruit canned in syrups or salted nuts) or “basically processed” (such as sugar, flour, and oil). When you add those in, the amount of processed food we consume is over the top.
Additionally, research from Northeastern University’s Network Science Institute indicates that 73 percent of the United States’ food supply is ultra-processed (think ice cream, candy, soda, chips, and more), which means that it is high in calories but low in nutritional value.
The bottom line here: Eating a diet of predominantly cooked and more processed foods can lead to decreased enzyme function and less-than-ideal digestion. While making gradual dietary changes to decrease processed foods and incorporate more raw eats is important, supplemental digestive enzymes can be helpful for supporting your digestion in the meantime.
2. You’re Stressed
If you feel frazzled and stressed out, you’re not alone. In fact, the American Psychological Association recently reported that more than a quarter of American adults surveyed feel stress affects their ability to function on a daily basis. Whether it’s work, finances, relationships, or parenting, many of the stressors people face feel constant.
In addition to these mental and emotional stressors, physical stressors such as frequent air travel, very hot or cold climates, and even normal functions like sweating can impact the body.
These stressors, in turn, affect digestive enzyme production. Here’s how: When someone is stressed, digestion—including the production of digestive enzymes—slows down until the stress is resolved. When stress is ongoing, though, digestive enzyme production remains low, which can then negatively impact your ability to be fully nourished by the food you eat.
If you’re experiencing a particularly stressful period, it might be a good idea to take digestive enzymes.
3. Your Digestion Feels Off
Of course, there are some obvious, outward signs that your digestive processes aren’t humming along smoothly. Symptoms such as occasional bloating (that puffy, swollen feeling you get from excess gas), constipation, flatulence, and abdominal distension and discomfort all suggest you may need more digestive enzymes and could benefit from supplementing.
Some may joke that they’re carrying a “food baby” as their abdomen pushes out, but it’s really no joking matter. Most people would rather not have to deal with occasional gassiness or bloating, whether it always pops up after meals or occurs more randomly.
4. You’re Aging
The natural aging process affects us all—and it’s normal. As time goes on, we age. It’s that simple.
Part of that process, though, includes potential declines in digestive enzyme production. Though the GI tract is in a constant state of replenishment, normal aging can cause changes in the digestive system, including a decrease in the production of important digestive enzymes, that may impact its overall function. For example, as people enter their 50s and 60s, shifts like occasional heartburn, occasional constipation, and even slower digestion and decreased nutrient absorption become more common.
Some of the nutrients most impacted by these digestive changes include calcium and vitamins A, B12, K, and D. That’s why adding digestive enzymes to your regimen can be particularly helpful as you get older.
What Kinds of Digestive Enzymes are Best?
As mentioned earlier, different enzymes have different functions, which is why I believe it’s best to take full-spectrum digestive enzymes, should you choose to supplement. (As always, consult your healthcare professional first.)
Here are a number of digestive enzymes to look for:
- Bromelain: A type of enzyme called a proteolytic enzyme, bromelain is found in pineapple juice and supports healthy digestion.
- Cellulase: A type of enzyme we don’t produce, cellulase is found in fruits and vegetables to help maximize our ability to digest them.
- Protease: This type of enzyme is necessary to break down, digest, and assimilate proteins in the diet.
- Lipase: A type of enzyme that breaks down fats from foods in the diet.
- Amylase: A type of enzyme that helps digest carbohydrates by breaking them down into smaller sugar molecules.
- Xylanase: An enzyme that breaks down certain types of plant fibers, xylanase isn’t made by the body but helps with digestion, absorption of nutrients, and with boosting enzymes made by the pancreas.
- Phytase: An enzyme that our body produces and is found in plant foods, phytase breaks down phytic acid as well as helps to increase the absorption of minerals such as calcium, iron, and zinc.
- Pectinase: This enzyme breaks down pectin, a type of fiber found in fruits that is a significant part of the human diet.
- Lactase: This enzyme breaks down lactose (the sugar in milk) into simple sugars that can be absorbed by the small intestine and used by the body. If not broken down, lactose can pass through the digestive tract unabsorbed. Some people have difficulty digesting lactose, so lactase plays an important role.
- Invertase: Also known as sucrase, invertase is a member of a group of important enzymes that break down sugars into the simple sugars glucose and fructose.
One fun way to get more of these digestive enzymes into your system is with Ancient Nutrition’s Organic SuperGreens, which is gently processed and made with more than two dozen superfood ingredients (including veggies, fruits, herbs, and more) to help you energize, detox and digest. It also contains an array of digestive enzymes, including cellulase, amylase, xylanase, lipase, phytase, pectinase, protease, lactase, and invertase.
The Bottom Line
Truly, your digestive system is your body’s source of growth, repair, and energy, so it’s essential that you feed it what it needs. Start by cutting back on cooked and especially processed foods, and incorporating more raw foods. Fresh vegetables and fruits (preferably organic) are loaded with enzymes—as are raw sprouted grains, raw seeds and nuts, avocados, and grapes. Raw fermented foods, in particular, also have high enzyme content, including the very enzymes necessary for digesting them! Kimchi and sauerkraut are two great examples, as are fermented dairy products like yogurt and kimchi.
Of course, managing stress is also important here. But if you’re struggling with your diet or are experiencing any symptoms of sub-par digestion, check in with your healthcare provider and consider incorporating supplemental digestive enzymes as needed to support that digestive fire.
Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, author, and member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. Dr. Axe operates one of the world’s largest natural health websites, sharing healthy recipes, herbal remedies, nutrition and fitness advice, and information on essential oils and natural supplements. Dr. Axe founded one of the largest functional medicine clinics in the world and has served as a physician for many professional athletes.