Are Digestive Enzymes Good for You?

Many people today, especially in the U.S., have started supplementing with digestive enzymes. They take them to ease gas, bloating and indigestion. Some take them to reduce inflammation. Yet, do an online search and you’ll see a lot of differing viewpoints. And so, the question remains…

Are digestive enzymes good for you?

In a word, yes. Digestive enzymes fuel digestion and absorption of nutrients from food. Without them, your body cannot break down the food you eat.

Your body, specifically your pancreas, naturally produces digestive enzymes. A small portion of the population suffers from a diagnosed condition called pancreatic insufficiency. It really means lack of digestive enzymes. This condition can occur for a variety of reasons, but when it does, doctors prescribe their patients pancreatic enzymes. They’ve been doing this for 60 years!

Today, digestive enzymes have become exceptionally popular for people across all age groups and medical conditions around the world. Why? The modern diet fails to provide the natural support it once did. With the growing rates of digestive disorders and chronic, degenerative diseases, the modern diet may actually disrupt enzyme levels and their effectiveness.

What digestive enzymes do

Think of a digestive enzyme like a key. It unlocks the nutrients in your food. Except, breaking down food to get to a nutrient involves lots of doors.

The process begins when you chew. Your saliva contains amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starches and sugars. In the stomach, protein digestion begins. Enzymes in the food you ate go to work. Stomach acid is introduced to provide an ideal environment for the enzymes to work.

In the small intestine, bile and more digestive enzymes are introduced. Gut bacteria get involved too as they contribute enzymes. Getting to the nutrients in food is a constant hand-off from one enzyme to another at every step along the way. Enzymes even fuel absorption of nutrients into the blood.

Yet when we think of digestion, we ignore digestive enzymes. Stomach acid gets a lot of attention due to acid reflux. Probiotics get a lot of attention for their role in a healthy bowel. But neither does anything without enzymes!

Digestion only happens with enzymes. In fact, every metabolic process in your body relies on enzymes. And that’s what make digestive enzymes so important – they provide the nutrients needed by the tens of thousands of metabolic enzymes your body uses to create energy, regulate hormones, remove waste from the blood and so much more.

Digestive enzymes also appear to be where the problem starts.

You Make Fewer Digestive Enzymes as You Age

By the age of 30, on average a person produces 95% less amylase. Chewing doesn’t break down as much starch, leading to starches and sugars reaching the stomach and intestines. These fuel the growth of unhealthy bacteria, viruses and fungus.

Middle-aged adults make less lipase, the enzyme that breaks down fat. Researchers know the elderly have such reduced enzyme levels they suffer from some degree of malnutrition![i]

And what often happens in middle-age? Weight gain occurs. Blood sugar problems develop. Gas, indigestion, bloating and more become common.

Often, it’s these irritable bowels of age that lead people to try a digestive enzyme. The results keep them using it! Beyond individual testimonials, studies also show they work.

  • In one study, patients who suffered from cramping, bloating and other symptoms of poor digestion experienced relief after taking a digestive enzyme with meals.
  • Digestive enzymes produced relief in patients with IBS, reducing gas and abdominal pain.
  • A Chinese study reported 80% of patients who took digestive enzymes experienced relief from indigestion.
But if the body makes digestive enzymes, why would I need more?

Ok, so decreased production of digestive enzymes as we age is one reason. But diet looks to play a big role too!

For tens of thousands of years, the human diet included natural, raw foods full of enzymes. These enzymes helped digest the exact foods people ate. It’s very possible the pancreas was never meant to produce all the enzymes needed for digestion.

Most food today lacks enzymes. Processing removes enzymes from foods, so all those refined, processed foods sitting on store shelves have none. Plus, at 120 degrees F enzymes in food break down, meaning cooked vegetables don’t supply the enzymes raw ones do. Even so called fresh foods lack enzymes; once their harvested the enzymes start to break.

This means even a healthy diet featuring natural fruits and vegetables bought at a grocery store lacks the enzymes of our ancestors!

The best sources for enzyme-rich foods include fresh picked produce right from your garden. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and sprouts and soaked seeds and nuts also deliver valuable digestive enzymes.

What is the best digestive enzyme supplement?

You’ll see a lot of digestive enzyme supplements on the market today. Frankly, some are good and others not as much. The best ones include a complete range of digestive enzymes – enzymes for starch, protein, and fat digestion at least. Catalase is good too as it helps to remove free radicals and support the body’s natural antioxidant activity.

Now, one argument made against digestive enzymes is that stomach acids and digestion break them down. It’s important to distinguish though between plant-based and pancreatic enzymes. For decades doctors have prescribed pancreatic enzymes for anyone with a diagnosed enzyme deficiency. Enzyme therapies like these have a coating to help them survive stomach acids.

Plant-based enzymes don’t need a coating like this. They can tolerate a much wider range of acidic environments including stomach acid!

Research done decades ago also has shown that enzymes can survive and boost an individual’s overall enzyme levels.[v] Many additional studies have supported these findings.

The durability of plant-based enzymes makes them the best digestive enzyme for almost everyone. Their ability to survive the acidic environment of the stomach increases the benefits they can deliver.

Another element to look for in an enzyme supplement is how well the enzymes support absorption. Clinical studies have shown some combinations of enzymes and other plant-nutrients enhance absorption, which is after all, exactly what you want.

 

References:

[i] Rémond D, Shahar DR, Gille D, et al. Understanding the gastrointestinal tract of the elderly to develop dietary solutions that prevent malnutritionOncotarget. 2015;6(16):13858-13898.

[ii] Money ME, Walkowiak J, Virgilio C, et al. Pilot study: a randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial of pancrealipase for the treatment of postprandial irritable bowel syndrome-diarrhoea. Frontline Gastroenterology 2011;2:48-56.

[iii] C. Ciacci, et al. Effect of beta-Glucan, Inositol and digestive enzymes in GI symptoms of patients with IBS. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci, Year: 2011, Vol. 15 – N. 6 Pages: 637-643.

[iv] Wu Y1, et al.  [Efficacy of compound digestive enzyme tablet for dyspeptic symptoms: a randomized double-blind parallel controlled multicenter clinical trial in China]. [Article in Chinese] Zhonghua Yi Xue Za Zhi. 2014 Nov 18;94(42):3326-8.

[v] Ambrus JL, et al. Absorption of exogenous and endogenous proteolytic enzymes. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 1967 May-Jun;8(3):362-8.

 

 

Why NASA is studying the health benefits of Spirulina

Sometimes it seems popular health foods rarely get a lot of positive support from mainstream nutrition and health authorities. That’s why when an organization like NASA studies the potential value of a super-health food like spirulina, well, it gets a lot of attention. In fact, since NASA’s research, the European Space Agency, the World Health Organization and many global organizations committed to ending malnutrition have embraced spirulina for its amazing dietary and health benefits![i]

Spirulina itself isn’t new to the human diet. We know the Aztecs used it at least as far back as the 1300’s. Some groups in Africa have also included spirulina in their diets. Today it’s an important source of nutrition and nourishment for many people and an important supplement to others, which is pretty incredible for something most of us would overlook as pond scum.

What is Spirulina?

Spirulina is the name given to the dried substance of a single-celled, blue-green algae called Arthrospira platensis that grows in fresh and saltwater environments. It grows best on highly alkaline lakes. It supplies a complete range of nutrients and protein, is easy to digest and has no significant side effects, all reasons that inspired NASA.

NASA Studies Spirulina for Its Nutrient Density

Space travel presents many challenges. A big one is ensuring astronauts get the nutrition they need. After all, due to weight limitations, there’s only so much they can take. As NASA discovered, spirulina may be small, but it’s a nutrient-dense powerhouse![ii]

Nearly 70% of spirulina is protein by weight and it contains all the essential amino acids. It’s also loaded with a complete range of vitamins and minerals, including many trace minerals missing in many diets today!

USDA Nutrient Profile for Spirulina[iii]

Nutrient Unit Value per 100 g 1 cup = 112.0g
Protein g 57.47 64.37
Total lipid (fat) g 7.72 8.65
Carbohydrate, by difference g 23.9 26.77
Fiber, total dietary g 3.6 4
Sugars, total g 3.1 3.47
Minerals
Calcium, Ca mg 120 134
Iron, Fe mg 28.5 31.92
Magnesium, Mg mg 195 218
Phosphorus, P mg 118 132
Potassium, K mg 1363 1527
Sodium, Na mg 1048 1174
Zinc, Zn mg 2 2.24
Vitamins
Vitamin C, total ascorbic acid mg 10.1 11.3
Thiamin mg 2.38 2.666
Riboflavin mg 3.67 4.11
Niacin mg 12.82 14.358
Vitamin B-6 mg 0.364 0.408
Folate, DFE µg 94 105
Vitamin A, RAE µg 29 32
Vitamin A, IU IU 570 638
Vitamin E (alpha-tocopherol) mg 5 5.6
Vitamin K (phylloquinone) µg 25.5 28.6
Lipids
Fatty acids, total saturated g 2.65 2.968
Fatty acids, total monounsaturated g 0.675 0.756
Fatty acids, total polyunsaturated g 2.08 2.33

 

Spirulina also contains a compound called phycocyanin, the pigment that gives spirulina its brilliant green color. This pigment is also a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties which has been shown to protect the brain, memory, and nervous system.[iv] Phycocyanin has also been reported to help:

  • Reduce allergy symptoms as well as over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamines
  • Detox heavy metals
  • Enhance and balance immune response
  • Kill tumor cells

It’s no wonder NASA used to feed and nourish astronauts in space. It’s also no wonder that spirulina is being used to address malnutrition in the poorer areas of the world.[v]

These nutrition and health benefits also explain why spirulina as a supplement has become popular today in modern countries like the United States.

Why NASA’s Spirulina Research is So Important Today

There’s no question there’s a serious health epidemic in the U.S. and really in many countries in the western world today. Heart disease is on the rise in middle-aged adults.[vi] Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) affects 30% of the population.[vii] And then there’s metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue and a host of degenerative diseases affecting people everywhere.

It’s become apparent that the refined, processed foods which make up a large part of the average diet don’t supply the nutrition the body needs. Plus, fruits and vegetables have experienced significant declines over the last 50 years in the amount of proteins, vitamins and minerals they have.[viii]

Spirulina offers a way to enhance daily nutrition which is essential to support metabolism and the body’s natural healing ability. It also keeps calorie counts low, making it a valuable tool for weight loss.

Great health starts with nutrition. But as researchers have discovered, nutritionally rich sources like spirulina provide additional benefits.

Additional Benefits of Nutrient-dense Spirulina

Researchers have identified that spirulina helps with many health problems people face today. Studies show, spirulina can help:

  • Lower cholesterol and protect the heart[ix]
  • Protect the brain, memory and cognitive function[x],[xi]
  • Boost energy and endurance[xii]
  • Stabilize blood sugar[xiii]
  • Reduce chronic fatigue[xiv]
  • Keep skin looking clear and healthy[xv]
  • Support the liver[xvi]
  • Strengthen bones[xvii]
How to Take Spirulina and Get the Maximum Benefit

You can find a lot of spirulina products and supplements online and in health food stores. Usually you’ll find them in capsules or powders. Some people swear by one or the other. The reality is, taking a quality spirulina supplement in any form will add high quality nutrition to your diet.

To get the most from your supplement (and your hard-earned dollar too), you need to ensure you can digest and absorb as much of the available nutrition as possible. Taking spirulina is good and will bring some health benefits, but if your digestion and absorption is less than optimal, then you might not get the maximum benefit from your spirulina.

How can you know if your digestion is weak? Digestive issues like gas and bloating, IBS, indigestion may indicate you’re not digesting your food well. This also means you’re not going to get the most out of your spirulina supplement.

One of the biggest reasons for poor digestion in adults is inadequate digestive enzyme levels. At age 30, the body start producing fewer enzymes, including digestive enzymes. This means you aren’t completely digesting your food or absorbing all the nutrients from it that you should.

So, to get the most from your spirulina, look for a supplement that includes digestive enzymes. This will ensure you have the enzymes needed to break down the nutrients and support absorption. It will also probably cost less than getting a separate spirulina supplement and a digestive enzyme supplement.

 

REFERENCES:

[i] https://www.bmj.com/content/326/7381/146/rr

[ii] https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19890016190.pdf

[iii] USDA

[iv] Liu Q, Huang Y, Zhang R, Cai T, Cai Y. Medical Application of Spirulina platensis Derived C-Phycocyanin. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM. 2016;2016:7803846. doi:10.1155/2016/7803846.

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/sep/12/spirulina-health-food-panacea-malnutrition

[vi] Vaughan, Adam S. et al. Widespread recent increases in county-level heart disease mortality across age groups. Annals of Epidemiology , Volume 27 , Issue 12 , 796 – 800.

[vii] Le MH, Devaki P, Ha NB, et al. Prevalence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and risk factors for advanced fibrosis and mortality in the United States. Yu M-L, ed. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(3):e0173499. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0173499.

[viii] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/soil-depletion-and-nutrition-loss/

[ix] Park HJ1, et al. A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study to establish the effects of spirulina in elderly Koreans. Ann Nutr Metab. 2008;52(4):322-8. doi: 10.1159/000151486. Epub 2008 Aug 19.

[x] Hwang JH1, et al. Spirulina prevents memory dysfunction, reduces oxidative stress damage and augments antioxidant activity in senescence-accelerated mice. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2011;57(2):186-91.

[xi] Koh EJ1, et al. Spirulina maxima Extract Ameliorates Learning and MemoryImpairments via Inhibiting GSK-3β Phosphorylation Induced by Intracerebroventricular Injection of Amyloid-β 1-42 in Mice. Int J Mol Sci. 2017 Nov 13;18(11). pii: E2401. doi: 10.3390/ijms18112401.

[xii] Kalafati M1, et al. Ergogenic and antioxidant effects of spirulina supplementation in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Jan;42(1):142-51. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181ac7a45.

[xiii] Jarouliya U1, et al. Alleviation of metabolic abnormalities induced by excessive fructose administration in Wistar rats by Spirulina maxima. Indian J Med Res. 2012 Mar;135:422-8.

[xiv] Karkos PD, Leong SC, Karkos CD, Sivaji N, Assimakopoulos DA. Spirulina in Clinical Practice: Evidence-Based Human ApplicationsEvidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM. 2011;2011:531053. doi:10.1093/ecam/nen058.

[xv] Yogianti F1, et al. Inhibitory effects of dietary Spirulina platensis on UVB-induced skin inflammatory responses and carcinogenesis. J Invest Dermatol. 2014 Oct;134(10):2610-2619. doi: 10.1038/jid.2014.188. Epub 2014 Apr 14.

[xvi] Yakoot M1, Salem A. Spirulina platensis versus silymarin in the treatment of chronic hepatitis C virus infection. A pilot randomized, comparative clinical trial. BMC Gastroenterol. 2012 Apr 12;12:32. doi: 10.1186/1471-230X-12-32.

[xvii] Gupta S1, et al. Spirulina protects against rosiglitazone induced osteoporosis in insulin resistance rats. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2010 Jan;87(1):38-43. doi: 10.1016/j.diabres.2009.10.002. Epub 2009 Nov 5.