All About Digestive Enzymes

At a time of year when many of us have over-indulged it’s important to think about our gut-health.  During this season we often eat to excess and include large quantities of foods that we would normally be much more restrictive of.  The result can be a tummy that doesn’t always feel comfortable.  You might suffer with bloating, flatulence or worse.

At Inspire we often talk to our members about the benefits of taking probiotic supplements and including prebiotics in their diet, but what about digestive enzyme supplements.  They’re definitely not for everyone and they’re not created equal either.

So, let’s dive into a few of the common digestive enzymes, what they do, and who should NOT take them.

What are digestive enzymes?

Technically, “enzymes” are compounds that help critical biochemical reactions to happen in your body. These reactions can be anything, from making neurotransmitters like serotonin, to burning food for energy, to breaking down food we eat into smaller pieces that our guts can absorb.

Oh, and their names all end with “ase”.

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As you’ve probably guessed, “digestive enzymes” are specifically those enzymes we use for digestion. They’re enzymes that our digestive system naturally makes and secretes when we eat.

It’s important to know that all the “macronutrients” we eat (carbs, protein & fat) need to be broken down into their individual (smaller) parts so that we can properly absorb and digest them. They’re just too big otherwise, and if we don’t absorb them properly, we can get symptoms of fatigue, malnutrition, digestive distress, or a host of other symptoms. 

It is these individual (smaller) parts that our body amazingly rearranges and uses to create other larger molecules that our body needs.

The most common digestive enzymes you’ll see on product labels are:

  • Amylase – Helps to break down starch into its sugars.
  • alpha-Galactosidase – Helps to break down specific “fermentable carbohydrates” into its sugars.
  • Lactase – Helps to break down lactose into its sugars.
  • Protease – Helps to break down protein into its amino acids.
  • Bromelain and/or Papain – Help to break down protein into its amino acids.
  • Lipase – Helps to break down fats into its lipids.

Who should consider taking digestive enzymes?

In general, the most common digestive symptoms that enzymes *may* help with are bloating, cramping, and/or diarrhoea. Particularly if it happens after eating certain foods (think lactose-intolerance symptoms after eating dairy).  If you often suffer with any of these symptoms it might be worth keeping a food diary for a while to see if there’s a common trigger.

One reason for these symptoms can be that food particles are not broken down properly, and the larger pieces travel further down the digestive tract to the gut microbiome where those little critters start breaking them down themselves. And this can be troublesome for some people.

A healthy gut microbiome is absolutely essential for good health but often our lifestyles throw the balance of our gut microbiota out so that the “bad” bacteria outweigh the good.  Poor diet, lack of activity or sleep and antibiotics will all affect the balance of your gut bacteria.

More and more research is showing just how it can affect not only our digestion, but also our immune system, and even our mood.

What do I need to know? – Medical conditions

Of course, you should read the label of any products you take, and take them as directed, especially if they’re not specifically recommended for you by a health care practitioner who knows your history.

Here are two critical things to be aware of:

1 – Digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates into sugars are not recommended for diabetics, or pregnant/breastfeeding women.

This is because taking them breaks down more carbohydrates into sugars than your body normally would; so, anyone at risk of blood sugar issues should take with caution.

2 – When it comes to enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids, there are a few people who should avoid them because of potential interactions. That is if you have an ulcer, or are taking blood-thinners or anti-inflammatories, or if you’re having surgery.

The reason is because the digestive enzymes that break down protein are thought to cause or worsen ulcers, as well as have the ability to “thin” the blood and prevent normal clotting.

What do I need to know? – Possible Side effects

Using digestive enzyme supplements for a prolonged period of time may well justify an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner. There may be strategies other than daily supplementation that can serve you better.

If you find that your symptoms get worse, or even if they don’t get better, you should probably stop using them.

Allergies are also a possiblity, so if you know or suspect you’re allergic, then you should avoid them.

And, as always, keep supplements away from children.

Before considering a digestive enzyme supplement

You shouldn’t just jump to supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis or at least trying a few strategies first.

My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax more, eat slower, and chew more thoroughly. Chewing signals the release of natural digestive enzymes within the digestive tract.  This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract.

The second step would be to try eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet (dairy & gluten, for example) and see if that helps.

Conclusion:

While many supplements are safe products, they’re not all for everyone. 

Make sure you:

  • Read your labels carefully (who should take them, how to take them, when to stop taking them).
  • If you have a medical condition or are taking medications speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
  • If you want expert advice on whether a specific supplement is for you, speak with a qualified health care practitioner.

References:

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=514&lang=eng

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=516&lang=eng

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=196&lang=eng

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=508&lang=eng

http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/monoReq.do?id=515&lang=eng

Natural Medicines Database, Bromelain, Papain, Retrieved January 21, 2017 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com