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.
[i] Rémond D, Shahar DR, Gille D, et al. Understanding the gastrointestinal tract of the elderly to develop dietary solutions that prevent malnutrition. Oncotarget. 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.