Digestive enzymes help your body break down the food you eat into smaller nutrients you can absorb. When our digestive system functions optimally, enzymes help digestion run smoothly and ensure our bodies get the proper nutrition they need from our diets. (8)
What are digestive enzymes?
The foods we eat consist of three main nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. To utilize these nutrients, our bodies must first break them down into smaller building blocks so they can be absorbed in the digestive system. (10) This process is catalyzed (made faster) by digestive enzymes.
There are thousands of digestive enzymes contributing to the digestive process, and each unique enzyme has its own purpose. Typically, enzymes are classified by what substance they help break down.
There are three main categories of digestive enzymes:
- Amylases: help break down carbohydrates, sugars, and starches (2)
- Lipases: help break down fat (5)
- Proteases: help break down proteins (5)
Other examples of digestive enzymes include sucrase, which helps break down sucrose sugar, (5) and lactase, which helps break down lactose sugars commonly found in dairy products. (8)
Did you know? Typically, enzymes are named according to the substance they act on and are suffixed with “-ase.” (3)
Where are digestive enzymes found?
The pancreas is the primary organ responsible for producing amylase, lipase, and protease enzymes, which are released into the small intestine to aid in nutrient breakdown. (5)(19)
Digestive enzymes are also produced by the mouth and stomach. (8) Salivary glands in the mouth produce amylase and lipase enzymes to begin the process of breaking down carbohydrates and starch, while enzymes from the stomach help digest proteins. (14)
Digestive enzymes can also be produced by plants and microbes. (4) For example, papaya and pineapple contain the natural enzymes papain and bromelain, respectively, which help break down the protein in your meal. (18) Eating kiwis has also been shown to aid in the digestion of protein, due to its naturally occurring enzyme, actinidin. (11) Kefir, a fermented milk, contains natural microbial cultures that have been shown to help enzymatically break down lactose, a dietary sugar commonly found in milk. (7)
How do digestive enzymes work?
Without realizing it, you’ve likely already experienced the work of digestive enzymes today. For example, as soon as you see food, your mouth starts producing saliva to prepare for your meal. (14)(15) As you chew your food, amylase and lipase found in your saliva are already hard at work breaking down your food into smaller components for better absorption. (8)
In the stomach, gastric juices containing the enzyme pepsin and hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) are secreted to help break down and digest the sources of protein from your meal. (8) From there, partially digested food is transported to the small intestine where most of the remaining nutrient absorption occurs. The pancreas assists digestion here by secreting various enzymes (6) into the small intestine. Finally, the remaining food material travels to the large intestine to be concentrated into waste, and eliminated from the body. (9)
Did you know? The pancreas was previously believed to produce a new batch of digestive enzymes in response to each meal. However, a review from 2002 suggests that digestive enzymes may instead be reabsorbed and recycled by the pancreas for further use. (1)
What causes enzyme deficiency?
Enzyme deficiency is characterized by the creation and secretion of enzymes at lower than normal levels. Various digestive and genetic conditions may cause enzyme deficiency, such as gallstones, cystic fibrosis, certain autoimmune conditions such as Sjogren’s syndrome, (17) and celiac disease. Pancreatic disorders such as pancreatitis may also result in enzyme deficiency. (14)
Did you know? Excessive alcohol consumption, (16) smoking, (12) and stress can dampen the efficacy of digestive enzymes.
Signs and symptoms of enzyme deficiency include:
- Diarrhea (20)
- Dyspepsia (indigestion) (14)
- Malnutrition (13)
- Flatulence and gas
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Weight gain and weight loss (14)
Should you consider digestive enzyme supplements?
As optimal digestion is dependent on a consistent supply of digestive enzymes, enzyme supplementation may help in the management of digestive disorders and other symptoms associated with poor digestion, such as lactose intolerance, (14) bloating, and burping. (18)
Various types, sources, and dosages of digestive enzymes are available in several formats, including powders, capsules, and tablets. (8)(13) When selecting the right formulation for you, consider the following factors.
Enteric-coated vs. non-enteric coated
Enteric-coated supplements are prepared to reduce the risk of supplemental enzymes being denatured or inactivated due to acidic environments like the stomach. Enteric-coated enzyme supplements can efficiently and safely pass through the stomach and small intestine, where they benefit digestion. (8)
Single-enzyme vs. multi-enzyme
Depending on your specific health needs, therapy with either specific or multiple enzymes may be warranted. For example, people suffering from lactose intolerance are deficient in the enzyme lactase, resulting in bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence after consumption of lactose-containing foods such as milk and milk products. Therefore, supplementation with lactase tablets is commonly recommended in the management of this condition. (8)(14)
Did you know? Individuals with lactose intolerance can also benefit from avoiding lactose-containing foods and opting instead for lactose-free milk alternatives. (8)
However, in some cases, multi-enzyme supplementation may provide greater benefit. For example, a combination of amylase, lipase, and protease enzymes can be synergistic in reducing symptoms of digestive distress and dyspepsia (13) such as bloating, flatulence, and fullness. Beneficial effects have also been noted when supplementing with a combination of animal-derived enzymes and microbe-derived enzymes. (18)
Your healthcare provider can help you determine which enzyme formulations would be most beneficial for your specific health needs.
Source of enzyme
Traditionally, animal-derived enzymes extracted from bovine or porcine (pork) sources have been the preferred form of supplementation for alleviating enzyme deficiency. Plant-based enzymes, such as bromelain from pineapple, can also serve as effective digestive aids for breaking down proteins. (18) In addition, microbe-derived enzymes, synthesized from yeasts or fungi, may have advantages as they often require a lower dose to be effective. (8) Studies have also noted that multi-enzyme formulas derived from bacterial and fungal origins are more stable under broader pH and temperature ranges. (13) This allows them to be better equipped to survive the harsh environments presented by our digestive systems. (18)
The bottom line
Digestive enzymes help our bodies efficiently break down and utilize carbohydrates, fats, and proteins from our diets and ensure digestion runs smoothly. When we have optimal levels and production of digestive enzymes, we can benefit from the total nutritional value of food and improve overall health and vitality.
If you suspect that you may be experiencing signs of digestive enzyme deficiency, speak to your integrative healthcare provider for testing and to learn if supplementation is right for you.
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