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Digestive Enzymes: The Key to Healthy Digestion

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Article Summary

  • Understand why digestive enzymes are so important to your health
  • See how what they do goes far beyond digestion
  • Explore the benefits of keeping your digestive enzyme levels up
  • Find out how to increase your digestive enzymes
  • Learn which foods help most
  • Discover how to get the most out of your digestive enzyme supplements
  • Get the answer to the question: digestive enzymes vs. probiotics

You couldn’t digest a single bite of food without digestive enzymes. Stomach acids get a lot of attention, but their purpose is to activate digestive enzymes and support their activity. Digestion – the breakdown and absorption of food – happens due to the activity of your digestive enzymes.

For healthy digestion, you need to ensure that you have plenty of digestive enzymes. In your youth, it’s generally not a problem. As you get older, it can be.

In this article, we’ll explore why age plays a role along with:

  • What digestive enzymes are
  • What they do
  • The benefits digestive enzymes give you
  • How to boost your digestive enzyme levels, if you need to
  • Foods you can eat to aid digestion
  • When to take digestive enzyme supplements
  • How to take them
  • Whether you should choose digestive enzymes or probiotics

Let’s get started!

What are digestive enzymes?

Digestive enzymes are complex protein molecules your body uses to break down food during digestion. There are three main classes of digestives enzymes:

  • Those like amylase, lactase, and others that break down carbohydrates
  • Proteases that break down proteins
  • Lipases that break down fats

Your body, specifically your pancreas and liver, produce most of your digestive enzymes. You can also get digestive enzymes from the food you eat.

When you eat, digestive enzymes go to work immediately.

  • It starts in your mouth when you chew. Saliva contains amylase, which starts the digestion of sugar.
  • Digestion continues in your stomach, where stomach acids begin to break down proteins.
  • The small intestine continues the process where digestive enzymes in bile break down fats while sugars and proteins continue to be broken down.

In addition to breaking down your food, digestive enzymes also support the absorption of nutrients from your food. And today, researchers are finding that digestion and gut health plays an even more significant role in our overall health than we might have ever thought.

What do they do?

The process of digestion involves unlocking and releasing nutrients from the food you eat. Each enzyme acts like a key to unlock and separate molecules chemically bound to each other.

We know these molecules as nutrients. The enzymes make the chemical reaction of separation possible.

Without the enzymes, the reactions would not occur, and your food would not get digested. You also would not be able to move (absorb) the nutrients across the lining of the small intestine and into your bloodstream.

Digestive enzymes also help to break down and aid in the removal of waste that can build up in the digestive tract.

In short, from your first bite to the last length of your small intestine, digestive enzymes are the power behind digestion and absorption of your food, as well as waste removal to keep your digestive tract healthy.

Benefits of digestive enzymes

At first glance, the benefits of digestive enzymes might seem straightforward – the digestion and absorption of nutrients from your food to keep you healthy, your energy high, and your mind clear.

Digestive enzymes do so much more, especially as it relates to your quality of life. For example:

  • By breaking down food, they prevent undigested pieces of food from causing gas and bloating.
  • By digesting sugars, they avoid a build-up in the gut, eliminating a food source for bad bacterial like pylori and invasive species like the fungi Candida albicans.
  • They support the probiotic bacteria in your gut, keeping those beneficial bacteria healthy and flourishing, which restricts the development of dangerous gram-negative bacteria that cause harm.

How you feel every day.

How much energy you have.

How you live.

Each of these starts with your ability to digest food, absorb its nutrients, and limit any digestive distress that might linger long after a meal, disturbing sleep, distracting your attention, or simply making you feel miserable.

Why you should boost levels of your digestive enzymes, especially as you age

You might wonder, if my body makes digestive enzymes, why would I need to increase them?

There are several answers to this question:

Have you ever overeaten and experienced indigestion, gas or bloating?

Like most of us, you probably answered yes. The reason you had this unpleasant experience likely had to do with you flooding your system with more food than it could reasonably digest. The undigested food in your gut led to the gas and bloating.

Does your diet consist of 1) fresh, raw foods, 2) processed foods, or 3) a mix of the two?

Answering yes to 2 & 3 indicates you may not be getting enough food-based digestive enzymes in your diet. Processed, cooked, and refined foods don’t have digestive enzymes. This puts extra stress on your pancreas and liver.

As your pancreas and liver devote more energy to producing digestive enzymes, they have less energy for producing metabolic enzymes, sometimes called systemic or proteolytic enzymes. Your body requires these metabolic enzymes to produce energy, clear waste, and toxins from your cells and blood, fight germs and disease and effectively drive all the processes your body requires to keep you alive.

When you eat fresh, raw foods – chewing them well, you release the enzymes in these natural foods that aid in their own digestion. It takes the pressure off your pancreas and liver, enabling them to meet other needs of your body.

In our 20s, we begin to produce fewer digestive enzymes.

By the age of 30, the average person produces 95% less amylase. By middle-age, adults make less lipase. Researchers have even suggested that elderly adults experience such a reduction of digestive enzymes that they suffer from malnutrition to some degree.[i]

These answers represent some of the most common causes today. Regardless of the reason, keeping your digestive enzyme level high is vital.

If you don’t, undigested food can rot, destabilizing the health of the gut, leading to a condition like leaky gut. Candida can flourish. You lose the balance of good (probiotic) and bad bacteria in the gut.

The key is to keep your digestive enzyme levels high.

Symptoms that you may be lacking or low in digestive enzymes include:

  • Bloating and gas after eating
  • Diarrhea as food passes through the digestive tract too quickly
  • Greasy stools, as you fail to digest the fats in your food
  • Constipation as digestion slows
  • Low energy from a lack of nutrient absorption or from an overtaxing of your body to produce the digestive enzymes needed to process the food you eat
  • “Brain fog”
  • Frequent moodiness as nutrient imbalances develop
  • Swelling in your joints and general pain that becomes a part of your every day living

[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.

How to increase digestive enzyme levels

To boost your levels of digestive enzymes, you can take four practical steps.

  • Chew your food completely. As noted, chewing releases the enzymes in your fresh foods. (They must be fresh, cooking denatures or deactivates the enzymes in fruits and vegetables). Also, when you chew, you release amylase through saliva. So, the more you chew, the more sugars you break down, supporting digestion.
  • Eat enzyme-rich fruits and vegetables. While most plants contain some level of enzymes (when consumed fresh and raw), some are packed with powerful enzymes shown to support digestion.
  • Take probiotics. These beneficial bacteria support gut health by aiding digestion. While your body produces digestive enzymes, it does not produce probiotic bacteria. They can thrive in your digestive tract, replenishing themselves, but you also need to support them by replenishing them with probiotic and prebiotic foods or supplements for good gut health and healthy digestion.
  • Take plant-based digestive enzymes. Plant-based digestive enzymes can survive the acidic environment of the stomach better than animal-based ones. By supplementing with digestive enzymes, you quickly supply your digestive tract what it needs to break down your food as they go to work right away.

Foods rich in enzymes for digestion

Cultures around the world have used the foods below for their taste and nutritional benefits. They also are well-known for the way they support digestion.

Recent studies have confirmed their use for digestive support. Researchers have also identified that they possess powerful digestive enzymes.

Pineapple

From pineapples, you get bromelain. This enzyme breaks down proteins and is well respected for its digestive support.[i]

Papaya

People have taken papaya seeds and eaten papaya to support digestion. Researchers have found it improves symptoms like gas, bloating, indigestion, and irritable bowels.[ii] The active enzyme in papaya is a protease called papain, which is often used as a meat tenderizer.

Mangoes

As a mango ripens, it becomes sweeter. This effect is caused by the amylases it contains that break down sugars.

Avocados

The avocado is a unique fruit for its high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. It probably comes as no surprise then that the avocado is high in lipases, the enzymes that break down fats.

Bananas

Like the mango, bananas get sweeter as they ripen due to amylases that break down carbs and sugars.[iii]

Kiwi

The kiwi may be popular with some for its sweet, fresh flavor, but it also contains actinidin, a protease used as a meat tenderizer too.[iv] In addition to this potent protease, it also includes amylases which cause it to ripen, or if you eat it when ripe, aid your own sugar digestion.[v]

Ginger

Used for centuries to soothe upset stomachs and irritable bowels, ginger contains a protease related to papain called Zingibain.[vi] Research has shown ginger helps food move through the digestive tract faster and relieves nausea, vomiting, constipation, bloating, gas, and helps protect against gastric ulcers.[vii],[viii]

Miso

With miso, you get the benefits of both digestive enzymes and probiotics. As a fermented food made from soybeans, it provides a diverse range of probiotic bacteria that support healthy digestion. The bacteria deliver the added benefit that they also supply enzymes that break down proteins, fats, and sugars.[ix],[x],[xi]

Kimchi

Another fermented food like miso, kimchi, provides beneficial probiotic bacteria and enzymes, including proteases, lipases, and amylases.[xii]

Sauerkraut

Cabbage naturally contains enzymes that support digestion. The fermentation process that produces sauerkraut promotes probiotic lactic acid bacteria, Lactobacillus, which supply additional digestive enzymes. Studies report eating sauerkraut promotes healthy digestion, with researchers finding that it can improve symptoms of irritable bowels.[xiii] 

 

When are enzyme supplements needed?

While it may be ideal to obtain all the digestive enzymes you need from food, that may not always be possible or practical. As a general guide, enzyme supplements will provide the most significant benefits when:

  • Your diet does not, or cannot, include daily consumption of garden-fresh vegetables and fruits (enzyme levels decrease significantly going through the supply chain from farm to table)
  • You regularly eat refined, cooked, and processed foods
  • Gas, bloating, and indigestion become common after eating
  • You are recovering from illness
  • You experience constipation
  • You have taken antibiotics
  • You find yourself developing food intolerances, like lactose intolerance, which can be a sign you are not producing the enzymes needed to digest these sugars
  • You plan to eat (or have eaten) a large meal, such as on holidays, where over-eating may occur
  • You are over the age of 30

How to take enzyme supplements for healthy digestion

A digestive enzyme supplement may be the easiest of all supplements to take.

For maximum benefit, take the recommended dose (usually one to three capsules – one if it’s Digest Infused) before you eat.

Now, let’s say you forget. Then you can take it during or even after a meal. It’s better to take it than not.

Like with any supplement, you might be wondering, do digestive enzymes have any side effects?

Other than less gas, bloating, indigestion, and overall good digestive health – No. You regularly consume enzymes from the fresh fruits and vegetables you eat. Your body will handle a good plant-based digestive enzyme supplement similarly.

Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics?

Sometimes we’re asked, should I take digestive enzymes or probiotics? Which is better?

Quite simply, you need both.

As noted earlier, your body produces digestive enzymes but makes fewer as you age. Replenishing probiotics is essential too for healthy digestion and, in fact, overall good health.

Both digestive enzymes and probiotics support healthy digestion, but they do it in different ways. Digestive enzymes break down your food, making it easier on your body to process what you eat. They also protect the probiotic bacteria in your gut by preventing undigested food from rotting and creating a highly acidic environment that would kill them off.

With digestive enzymes and probiotics, it is not an either/or – it is both/and.

Just remember, when choosing digestive enzymes and probiotics, choose those that are clean, plant-based, come from a GMP-certified facility, and have a high-potency and offer a large diversity of enzymes and probiotic strains to ensure the maximum effect.

[1] 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.

[1] Roxas M. The role of enzyme supplementation in digestive disorders. Altern Med Rev. 2008 Dec;13(4):307-14.

[1] Muss C, et al. Papaya preparation (Caricol®) in digestive disorders. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2013;34(1):38-46.

[1] Bassinello PZ, et al. Amylolytic activity in fruits: comparison of different substrates and methods using banana as model. J Agric Food Chem. 2002 Oct 9;50(21):5781-6.

[1] Han J, et al. Pre-rigor infusion with kiwifruit juice improves lamb tenderness. Meat Sci. 2009 Jul;82(3):324-30. doi: 10.1016/j.meatsci.2009.02.003. Epub 2009 Feb 14.

[1] Boland M. Kiwifruit proteins and enzymes: actinidin and other significant proteins. Adv Food Nutr Res. 2013;68:59-80. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-394294-4.00004-3.

[1] Huang XW, et al. Purification, characterization, and milk coagulating properties of ginger proteases. J Dairy Sci. 2011 May;94(5):2259-69. doi: 10.3168/jds.2010-4024.

[1] Hu ML, Rayner CK, Wu KL, et al. Effect of ginger on gastric motility and symptoms of functional dyspepsia. World J Gastroenterol. 2011;17(1):105–110. doi:10.3748/wjg.v17.i1.105

[1] Haniadka R, et al. A review of the gastroprotective effects of ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe). Food Funct. 2013 Jun;4(6):845-55. doi: 10.1039/c3fo30337c. Epub 2013 Apr 24.

[1] Zhao Q, et al. High level production of β-galactosidase exhibiting excellent milk-lactose degradation ability from Aspergillus oryzae by codon and fermentation optimization. Appl Biochem Biotechnol. 2014 Mar;172(6):2787-99. doi: 10.1007/s12010-013-0684-2. Epub 2014 Jan 18.

[1] Chuenjit Chancharoonpong, et al. Enzyme Production and Growth of Aspergillus oryzae S. on Soybean Koji Fermentation. APCBEE Procedia, Volume 2, 2012, Pages 57-61, ISSN 2212-6708. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apcbee.2012.06.011.

[1] Jinichi Toida, et al. (1995) Purification and Characterization of a Lipase from Aspergillus oryzae. Bioscience,Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 59:7, 1199-1203, DOI: 10.1271/bbb.59.1199

[1] Wang Y, Wu Y, Wang Y, et al. Antioxidant Properties of Probiotic Bacteria. Nutrients. 2017;9(5):521. Published 2017 May 19. doi:10.3390/nu9050521

[1] Nielsen ES, et al. Lacto-fermented sauerkraut improves symptoms in IBS patients independent of product pasteurisation – a pilot study. Food Funct. 2018 Oct 17;9(10):5323-5335. doi: 10.1039/c8fo00968f.

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