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The Truth About Digestive Enzyme Supplements

An image of digestive enzymes in one's bodyDigestive enzyme supplements are particularly popular at the moment, but there's not much research out there on how well they work.  Some claim they could help all kinds of digestive disorders, while others suggest they are only useful if you have a deficiency. And it's even more complicated if you have a coexisting condition like adrenal fatigue or detoxification issues. Here’s what you should know about these supplements before you start using them.

What are Digestive Enzyme Supplements?

Your body secretes digestive enzymes from glands. These enzymes work to break down the food you eat. These enzymes start in the saliva in your mouth and continue all the way down into your gut. Some of these enzymes are created in your pancreas, liver, and gallbladder and others are stored in intestinal cells.

There are different enzymes to break down different nutrients in the food you eat. Some of the most important are:

  • Protease, which breaks down proteins
  • Lipase handles fats
  • Amylase for carbs and starches

When the glands that secrete the enzymes are healthy, digestion will occur in the background and you’ll be unaware of it. However, when these glands are damaged or stop working, it can cause a whole range of problems. This is when you may need digestive enzyme supplements to cover the lack.

You can buy these supplements over the counter and there are several different kinds available. They’re designed to mimic the enzymes that are naturally created in the body. Some are designed for specific digestive issues while others contain a combination of enzymes to address any and all digestive problems. However, there are no reliable studies at this point that prove whether they work or not.

Common Digestive Issues

Lack of digestive enzymes are a key cause of digestive issues. Up to 70 million Americans experience digestive problems and symptoms such as:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Stomach aches

Digestive disorders can be hereditary or occur because of damage to the glands that make enzymes through injury, surgery, or illness. One of the most common and troublesome is lactose intolerance. When you’re lactose intolerant, your body doesn’t make enough or any lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the sugar in milk. As a result, the sugar in dairy can cause digestive upsets.

Should You Supplement?

There is a lot of debate about whether people should take digestive enzyme supplements or not because there is little evidence about whether they work. Supplementing can be helpful in cases when you have conditions that negatively impact the lining of your stomach and thus enzyme production. Some of these conditions are:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Low stomach acid
  • Gallbladder removal
  • Lactose intolerance

In these situations, taking digestive enzymes to replace what your body is unable to produce can be helpful. But if you don’t suffer from these conditions or if your symptoms are mild, then it’s probably safer and cheaper to find other ways to correct your digestive upsets. This will help you avoid side effects and other problems that can occur when you take these supplements.

These supplements should also not be taken by pregnant or breastfeeding women or to children under the age of 4 without a doctor’s supervision.

The Dangers of Enzyme Supplements

One issue that can occur when you take supplements is interactions with other medications. Digestive enzyme supplements have been known to interfere with medications like blood thinners and diabetes medications. So if you are taking any other medication, talk to your doctor before adding enzyme supplements.

An image of a man with red blotches on his armThere is also the risk that you will have a reaction from supplementing with enzymes. These tablets contain other substances that have been known to cause allergies or sensitivities even when their label claims that they’re all-natural. If you do react poorly to supplementing, then it may make your digestive issues worse.

And finally, there is the problem of efficacy. Make sure you are taking the right type and dosage and rotation of digestive enzymes for optimal function. There's also little evidence that this type of supplement is helpful if you don't have a deficiency.

How to Address Digestive Issues Naturally

There are ways to address and correct digestive problems naturally. There are two main strategies that will help with this:

Eliminate Foods

Digestive issues can be caused by certain types of food that your body is sensitive to. If you eliminate these foods from your diet, your symptoms will improve or disappear. Try removing some or all of these foods and adding them back slowly. When your digestive problems reappear, you’ll know what foods are causing the problem. Some of the top foods to eliminate are:

  • Dairy
  • Sugars
  • Grains
  • Industrial seed oils

Some food elimination diets designed to help digestive issues include the FODMAP diet, the specific carbohydrate diet, and the Low-Fiber diet. It's important to do your research before starting these different diets, as they are designed to target different digestive conditions.

Add Foods

Some foods actually contain natural digestive enzymes. Eating more of these foods can markedly improve your digestion. Foods to eat more of include:

  • Fruits in general
  • Sauerkraut
  • Fermented cabbage
  • Honey
  • Papaya
  • Avocado
  • Banana
  • Mangoes
  • Vegetables of all kinds

Eating more of these foods will not only improve your digestion, but they could also improve your health overall.

However, it is worth noting that if you have certain conditions such as IBS or Crohn's, your body may not digest all of these foods well. Some are on the "no" list of some of the elimination diets referenced above. So make sure they will work for you before trying them.

How to Choose Digestive Enzyme Supplements

It’s always best to get the enzymes you need from food. But if you do decide to supplement, then you need to choose your supplement carefully. Here’s how:

  • Make sure that it contains the enzymes that will help your specific digestive problem.
  • Read the label to ensure it doesn’t contain anything you’re allergic to.
  • Buy good quality supplements from a reputable supplier.

You will need to be even more careful if you choose to supplement when you have Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

Supplements and AFS

An image of a woman about to take a capsuleIt might be tempting to use supplements when you have AFS. Nutritional deficiencies are a common cause of the stress that can bring on AFS, and supplements can seem like an easy way to alleviate the deficiency and the stress. But this isn’t the case. In fact, supplements can actually worsen your condition.

The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response is the system that causes changes in your body’s circuits in response to stress. These changes help you cope with stress and protect you from its harmful effects. The adrenal glands are a key part of the NEM stress response as they excrete the cortisol that brings about many of these changes. Unfortunately, the NEM stress response is only designed to be active for short periods.

When you’re stressed over a long period, as many people are in the modern world, the NEM stress response becomes overworked. The adrenals can start to fatigue from the high workload and breakdown. This is when you will experience imbalances in your body’s systems as they are prevented from returning to their normal level of functioning. If you don’t alleviate this situation, it can get very debilitating, frightening, and even dangerous.

Common Reactions to Supplements in AFS

If you take supplements in an effort to alleviate nutritional deficiencies and AFS, it can easily backfire. When you have AFS, your body is extremely sensitive to changes, even positive ones. These changes register as additional stress, which will increase the adrenal glands' workload and worsen AFS.

Sensitivities are also common when you have AFS. You may find yourself sensitive to the supplements you take, even if you’ve never reacted before. The symptoms and the increase in your body’s immune response that results from these sensitivities will also worsen AFS.

Then there’s the danger of paradoxical reactions. This occurs often in AFS because of circuit imbalances. When you have a paradoxical reaction, your body reacts to a substance in the opposite way than it’s supposed to. So, you may experience a very poor reaction to supplements or a worsening of the symptoms and problems that you were trying to alleviate. That’s why it’s so important that you see a doctor who’s aware of AFS and how your body may react to supplements before you take them.

It’s also important to understand how digestive enzyme supplements may interact with an unbalanced Bioenergetics Circuit when you have AFS.

The Bioenergetics Circuit and Supplements

The Bioenergetics Circuit includes the liver, pancreas, and thyroid and it’s one of the least understood parts of the NEM stress response. This circuit produces energy for every cell in your body, so when you have AFS and it becomes unbalanced, the effects can be severe.

When your Bioenergetics Circuit is unbalanced, you’re more likely to need digestive enzyme supplements. However problems with this circuit also make paradoxical reactions and oversensitivity to supplements much more common. So if you do try digestive supplements, be careful, listen to your body, start low and go slow.

Problems associated with the Bioenergetics Circuit usually become obvious later in the stages of AFS. This means that your body will already be in a very oversensitive and worn-down state. This can make you subject to worse reactions.

Here’s how the different components of the Bioenergetics circuit can be affected by supplements:

The Liver

An image of a stomach diagram with the liver highlighted in redThe liver is responsible for ridding the body of metabolites, the harmful substances that are produced as a result of metabolism and stress. This includes the metabolites that are produced because of the incomplete breakdown of any supplements that you take.

When the liver is unhealthy because of AFS, these metabolites can linger in the body, turning toxic and causing an immune response. If you take digestive supplements when you’re already in this state, it will only add to the toxic overload rather than improve your health.

Liver problems are also closely connected to gut health. It’s common for people with AFS to experience dysbiosis of the microbiome. This means that the small intestine basically starts to leak, letting bacteria and food particles move from the gut and into the blood. This means that if you’re taking supplements to improve the health of your gut, the resulting liver strain and toxicity may overwhelm any positive effects that you experience.

The Pancreas

The pancreas is responsible for creating some of the enzymes that your body needs to break down food. If the pancreas is unbalanced, then replacing some of the enzymes it can no longer create may be helpful. However, the inflammation caused by liver dysfunction and toxic metabolite build-up in the body may make this improvement insignificant in comparison.

The Thyroid

The thyroid produces hormones that are essential for energy production and metabolism. However, this hormone production often slows down in AFS because of imbalances, poor gut health, and because the body is trying to conserve energy to survive and heal. The health of the thyroid will also decline in AFS as the liver and pancreas become dysfunctional.

Taking digestive enzyme supplements may help improve the health of the gut and of the other two components of the Bioenergetics Circuit. However, this assistance may be minimal at best. Poor thyroid function will negatively impact the absorption of any digestive enzyme supplements that you take. This means that your body may struggle to absorb the supplements, leaving them to turn into metabolites that worsen liver and gut health directly and thyroid health indirectly.

This is obviously a very complex situation, and the safest course is to see an AFS aware doctor to start to unravel it.

The Takeaway

The human body is a delicate instrument and medical science still can’t explain everything about it. Digestive enzyme supplements are an example of this lack. They may help for certain conditions, but in healthy people, it’s usually best to adjust your lifestyle first. This will allow you to enjoy all the benefits of supplements without harmful side effects. However, if you’re determined to supplement, here’s how to do it safely:

  1. Talk to your doctor first.
  2. Make sure your supplement contains the substances that your body needs to function correctly.
  3. Start with very low doses and discontinue use if you notice side effects.

For more advice on supplementation, click here for our Ask the Doctor system or call our team on +1 (626) 571-1234 for a free initial consultation.

© Copyright 2016-2021 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam's Key Question

There’s a lot of argument about the benefits of digestive enzyme supplements. They can be helpful for certain health conditions with a doctor’s supervision. However, if you’re otherwise healthy then try making lifestyle changes to improve your digestion before taking expensive pills.

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