Digestive Enzymes - What Are They, Do You Need Them
Common digestive issues like gas, bloating, nausea, diarrhea, and constipation puts a cramp in your quality of life, especially if they become common.
Up to 70 million Americans are affected by a digestive disease, according to the National Institutes of Heath. Consumers are starting to take notice of digestive enzyme supplements, which have been suggested to help the body break down food compounds, which means increased nutrient absorption, and they could also help relieve symptoms of indigestion.
In 2017, a report was published by Grand View Research, Inc and they estimate that the global digestive enzyme supplement market will hit $1.6 billion by 2025. As popularity around these products increase, we need to start questioning whether they work and how safe they are to use.
Here's what the experts had to say.
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Your body secretes a variety of enzymes that break down the foods we eat. Some digestive enzymes are secreted starting at our mouth, while others are further down the digestive tract.
Ken Berry, MD, is a Tennessee-based board-certified family physician and is the author of Lies My Doctor Told Me. He says "the most important enzyme categories are the proteases (which break down proteins), lipases (fats), and amylases (starches and sugars)." The normally functioning glands in our mouth, stomach, small intestine, gall bladder, and pancreas are all great at producing the enzymes we need.
When these glands stop functioning normally or have been damaged, digestive enzyme supplements can help pick up the slack.
Who May or May Not Benefit From Digestive Enzymes?
Many diseases of the stomach and small intestine reduce the number of enzymes they can produce. People with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, or low stomach acid may find these enzyme supplements helpful. Individuals with chronic pancreatitis have a deficiency of pancreatic enzymes and could also benefit.
If you've had your gall bladder removed, that could cause a deficiency so that fats do not break down properly. Using a digestive enzyme supplement could be a healthy measure to reduce your digestive dramas.
If You Don't Have Enzyme Deficiencies
If you've never had your poop tested for proper enzyme levels, don't have a definite enzyme deficiency, or the symptoms are more of a nuisance than a problem, it may be better on your wallet to remove the foods that are causing the digestive distress.
For most of us, removing sugars, grains, industrial seed oils, and liquid dairy all could dramatically improve our digestive issues that many would try to treat with a supplement.
Different Kinds of Digestive Enzyme Supplements
"Many over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements on the market have three basic categories of digestive enzymes that are created naturally within the body. These are protein, fat, and carb-specific," says Nazir Khaja, MD, California-based gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor at UCLA School of Medicine.
Two of the more well-known examples are alpha-galactosidase and lactase. Alpha-galactosidase are for sugars found in cruciferous veggies and legumes, while lactase is for digesting lactose found in dairy products.
As the market grows, there are more supplements starting to contain a combination of enzymes and claim they can help alleviate multiple gut issues in one shot. Dr. Berry notes "whether they actually help or not is up for debate, because no meaningful studies have proven their merit."
Can You Become Dependent on Digestive Enzyme Supplements?
According to Dr. Berry, the only scenario where your body would become reliant on a digestive enzyme supplement is if you have a legitimate deficiency.
This means the supplement is necessary for proper digestive function.
Will Digestive Enzyme Supplements Interfere With Other Medications?
While digestive enzyme supplements are labeled as containing natural ingredients — derived from plants — and regarded as safe, they could still interfere with other medications you are taking like for diabetes or blood thinners.
If you are thinking about trying a digestive enzyme supplement, it's best to talk to your doctor and go over any possible interactions they may have on your current medications.
What's the Safest Way to Try Digestive Enzyme Supplements?
You're going to have to read the label.
Make sure the supplement you are considering contains the enzyme your doctor thinks may help with improving your digestive process. Proteases break down proteins, lipases break down fats, and amylases break down starches and sugars. Be sure to check the ingredient list to make sure there's nothing in it you are allergic to. Be sure to check for ingredients such as bitter orange or kava, as they have been linked to side effects.
Digestive enzyme supplements aren't regulated by the FDA, but there are private groups that offer seals of approval for dietary supplements. These include the Natural Products Association and USP Quality Supplements. In order to get one of these seals, your product needs to contain what's on the label and good manufacturing procedures. If you spot a supplement with one of these seals, it helps ensure you are buying a better quality product.
Side Effects of Digestive Enzyme Supplements
Having a digestive enzyme supplement if you do not have a specific deficiency may trigger the symptoms you are trying to avoid. Things like nausea, bloating, and diarrhea may pop up.
Allergic reactions could also be an issue, which includes itching, stomach pain, rash, and difficulty swallowing.
If you notice any of these side effects, stop taking the supplement stat and seek medical attention if necessary.
Even if you took a digestive enzyme supplement and didn't have any side effects, it is best to let your doctor know you are taking them — especially if you are looking to make taking them regularly. You can find out about any issues that you may have down the road, and your doctor is already in the loop if you need to consult them later.
12 Foods That Contain Natural Digestive Enzymes
As we eat, our organs take the food and liquids and break them down into simpler forms that our body can process — such as proteins, carbs, fats, and vitamins. Then, the nutrients are transported across our small intestine into our bloodstream. This is where we get energy for growth and repair.
These digestive enzymes are necessary for this process, as they break down fat, protein, and carbohydrate molecules into smaller molecules that can be easily absorbed.
As I mentioned earlier, there are three main digestive enzyme types:
Proteases break down protein into small peptides and amino acids
Lipases break down fat into three fatty acids plus a glycerol molecule
Amylases break down carbohydrates like starch into simple sugars.
Our small intestine also produces lactase, maltase, and sucrase enzymes. If your body can't produce enough digestive enzymes, food molecules won't be digested properly. This could lead to digestive disorders like lactose intolerance.
This is why it is important to eat plenty of foods that are high in natural digestive enzymes.
#1 - Papaya
A wonderful tropical fruit rich in enzymes is papaya. They contain proteases that help digest proteins, but they contain a different type of proteases known as papain. Papain is also available as a meat tenderizer and digestive supplement.
Studies suggest a papaya-based formula could help reduce the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as bloating and constipation. Be sure to eat papayas when they are ripe and uncooked — heat exposure can destroy these digestive enzymes. Unripe or semi-ripe papayas could be dangerous for women, as it may stimulate contractions.
#2 - Pineapple
Pineapple, just like papaya, is a delicious tropical fruit filled with digestive enzymes.
Pineapples contain a group of digestive enzymes called bromelain. These are proteases, which break down protein into their simple building blocks, including amino acids.
Bromelain can be bought in powder form to help tenderize tough meats, and is widely available as a health supplement to help those who struggle to digest proteins. Studies suggest people with a pancreatic insufficiency, in which the pancreas cannot produce enough digestive enzymes, found that taking bromelain combined with a pancreatic enzyme supplement improved digestion more than the enzyme supplement alone.
#3 - Mango
Yet another tropical fruit, mangoes are juicy and a popular summer treat. They contain amylases, which is the group of enzymes that break down carbs into sugars like glucose and maltose.
The amylase enzymes in mangoes become more active as the fruit ripens. This is also why mangoes become sweeter as they ripen. Our pancreas and salivary glands produce amylase, which is why it is often recommended to chew food thoroughly before you swallow. The enzymes in your saliva help break down the carbs for easier absorption and digestion.
#4 - Honey
One of my personal favorites, this delicious food is rich in many beneficial compounds, including digestive enzymes. It's estimated that Americans enjoy over 400 million pounds of honey each year.
Raw honey contains a lot of enzymes — this includes:
- Diastases break down starches into maltose
- Amylases break down starches into sugars like glucose and maltose
- Invertases break down sucrose into glucose and sucrose
- Proteases break down proteins into amino acids
While any honey can provide many health benefits, raw honey is best for those seeking digestive health benefits. Processed honey is often heated, which destroys the digestive enzymes.
#5 - Avocados
Avocados are great because they are high in fats and low in sugar. They contain the digestive enzyme lipase, which helps digest fat molecules into smaller molecules like fatty acids and glycerol.
Lipase is also made by your pancreas, so you don't need to get it from your diet. Taking a lipase supplement, however, can help ease digestion... especially after a high-fat meal. Avocados contain other enzymes such as polyphenol oxidase, which is the enzyme responsible for turning green avocados brown in the presence of oxygen.
#6 - Bananas
Bananas are a great fruit that contains natural digestive enzymes. These are amylases and glucosidases — two groups of enzymes that break down complex carbs like starch into smaller and more easily absorbed sugars.
Bananas, like mangoes, break down starch into sugars as the fruit ripens. This is why yellow bananas are sweeter than green bananas. Along with their enzyme content, bananas are a great source of dietary fiber, which helps with digestive health.
A two-month study took 34 women and looked at the connection between eating bananas and the growth of healthy gut bacteria. The women who are two bananas daily experienced a modest, non-significant rise in healthy gut bacteria. However, they did experience significantly less bloating.
#7 - Sauerkraut
There's nothing like some sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage and has a distinct sour taste.
The fermentation process adds digestive enzymes, which make sauerkraut a great way to improve your gut health. Sauerkraut is considered a probiotic food since it contains healthy gut bacteria that help boost your immunity and digestive health.
Many studies have shown consuming probiotics can help ease digestive symptoms like bloating, constipation, gas, diarrhea, and stomach pain. It is beneficial for both healthy adults and those with irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, and ulcerative colitis.
#8 - Kefir
Kefir is a fermented milk beverage that is popular in the health community. It's made by adding kefir grains to milk. These grains are actually cultures of yeast, lactic acid bacteria, and acetic acid bacteria that resemble a cauliflower.
During the fermentation, bacterial digest the natural sugars in the milk and convert them into organic acids and carbon dioxide. This process is what creates the condition so that the bacteria can grow, but also add nutrients, enzymes and other beneficial compounds.
Kefir contains many healthy digestive enzymes that include lipase, proteases, and lactase. Lactase aids in the digestion of lactose, which is a sugar in milk that is often poorly digested. Studies found kefir improved lactose digestion in those with lactose intolerance.
#9 - Kimchi
Kimchi, the spicy Korean side dish that is made from fermented vegetables. Just like sauerkraut and kefir, the fermentation adds healthy bacteria which provide nutrients, enzymes, and other benefits.
Kimchi contains the Bacillus species of bacteria which produces proteases, lipases, and amylases. These help digest proteins, fats, and carbs, respectively.
Aside from aiding in digestion, kimchi may have other health benefits. Studies suggest it may be especially effective at lowering cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors.
One study took 100 young, healthy participants. The researchers found that those who ate the most kimchi experienced the greatest reduction in total blood cholesterol. Elevated total blood cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease.
#10 - Miso
Miso is a very popular seasoning in Japanese cuisine. Miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, which is a type of fungus. The koji adds a variety of digestive enzymes, including lactases, lipases, proteases, and amylases. This is one reason why miso may improve your ability to digest and absorb foods.
Studies suggest the bacteria in miso may reduce symptoms that are linked to digestive problems, such as irritable bowel disease. Lastly, fermenting the soybeans helps improve their nutritional quality by reducing their antinutrient content. Antinutrients are compounds found naturally in foods that hinder the absorption of nutrients by binding to them.
#11 - Ginger
Ginger has been a part of cooking and traditional medicine for thousands of years. There are many health benefits from ginger, but one of the most notable may be attributed to its digestive enzymes.
Ginger contains the protease zingibain, which helps break proteins down.
Zingibain is commercially used to make ginger milk curd — a popular Chinese dessert. Unlike other proteases, it's not often used to tenderize meats due to its short shelf life.
Food that sits in your stomach too long is often thought to be the cause of indigestion.
Studies using healthy adults and those with indigestion show that ginger helped move the food faster through the stomach by promoting the contractions in the stomach.
Animal studies suggest that spices like ginger helped increase the body's own production of digestion enzymes like amylases and lipases. Ginger also appears to be a very promising treatment for nausea and vomiting.
#12 - Kiwifruit
Kiwifruit is an edible berry that is often recommended to ease digestion. It's a great source of protease called actinidain. This enzyme helps digest proteins and is commercially used to tenderize tough meats.
Scientists believe actinidain is one reason why kiwifruits seem to aid digestion. An animal study found adding kiwifruit to their diet improved the digestion of beef, gluten, and soy protein isolates in the stomach. They believe this is due to its actinidain content. Another animal study analyzed the effects of actinidain on digestion, so it fed some animals kiwifruit with active actinidain, and other animals kiwifruit without active actinidain.
The results showed that the animals that ate kiwifruit with active actinidain digested meat more efficiently and moved through the stomach faster. There are many human-based studies that also found that kiwifruit aids with digestion, reduces bloating, and may help relieve constipation.