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Breaking Down The Truth Behind Digestive Enzymes

An image of digestive enzymesIf you happen to walk down a supplement aisle at the supermarket, you would probably have noticed supplements like digestive enzymes making their appearance.

Digestive enzymes have increased in popularity over the years, but what exactly are they, and should you be taking them? In this article, we are going to take a look at enzymes, the different types, and the facts about this relatively new trend.

What Are Digestive Enzymes?

If we break down this phrase, enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions in your body. Digestive enzymes are proteins that help you to digest your food; without them, your food would not be able to be digested properly.

Digestive enzymes refer to a family of enzymes that are involved in digestion, which include:

  • Protease
  • Amylase
  • Lipase
  • Lactase
  • Sucrase
  • Maltase

How Are They Made?

Various parts of your body are involved in producing digestive enzymes including your tongue, pancreas, gallbladder, liver, and intestine.

These parts of your body produce digestive enzymes in response to the anticipation of eating, the smell, and the taste of food as well as through the digestive process.

Protease, amylase, and lipase are enzymes produced by the pancreas. These enzymes are the main enzymes involved in digestion. While these are the main enzymes produced by the pancreas, the pancreas also produces other enzymes that help us to break down food. Meanwhile, lactase, sucrase, and maltase are enzymes made in the small intestine.

What Do They Break Down?

Every digestive enzyme in your body is responsible for breaking down a specific nutrient, and the clue is in the name.

Protease breaks down protein, lipase breaks down fat, amylase breaks down starch, lactase breaks down lactose, sucrase breaks down sucrose, and maltase breaks down maltose.

Without these enzymes, your body is unable to break down the nutrient. And if the nutrient cannot be broken down, it results in an intolerance to that specific nutrient, such as lactose intolerance or being unable to digest fat.

Natural Sources of Digestive Enzymes

Your body is not the only place where digestive enzymes are found. Certain foods and spices also contain natural enzymes that help assist in digestion.

For example:

  • Avocados contain lipase
  • Raw honey has amylase and protease
  • Banana has amylase
  • Sauerkraut and kimchi contains lipases and proteases
  • Ginger has a protease called zingibain

What Happens If Your Digestive Enzymes Are Low?

If the level of digestive enzymes is low in your body, specific nutrients will not be able to get broken down.

If the nutrients aren’t broken down, they remain partially digested, and this can result in symptoms that include pain, bloating, flatulence, nausea, and diarrhea (typically with foul-smelling stool that has an oily and floating appearance).

The level of enzymes in your body can be determined by blood or stool tests. The enzymes that are mainly tested for are the pancreatic ones: amylase, protease, and lipase.

There are multiple reasons for your enzymes to be low. It can be due to genetics, lifestyle, pancreas damage (in the case of Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency, or EPI), or gastrointestinal tract (GIT) damage.

An image of a woman showing an inflamed pancreas areaCommon conditions that can cause EPI are, pancreatitis also known as inflammation of the pancreas, pancreatic cancer, and cystic fibrosis. Damage to the gut from illnesses such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) also frequently causes a deficiency in the enzymes produced in the gut such as sucrase and lactase.

At the same time, while some conditions result in a deficiency of these enzymes, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are also conditions where the digestive enzymes are elevated. These conditions include pancreatic cancer, a blockage within the pancreas, and acute pancreatitis.

The symptoms of elevated pancreatic enzymes are similar to the symptoms of low pancreatic enzymes such as pain, nausea, and vomiting, and also include fever and a rapid pulse.

This is why it’s important to check the levels of your pancreatic enzymes to distinguish whether they are high or low.

What Can You Do to Improve Low Digestive Enzymes?

If your enzymes are low, there are several ways to attempt to correct your levels. Supplemental enzymes and a diet low in fat are measures often taken. It’s also important to work to correct the primary cause of the low digestive enzymes.

Dietary Changes

Reducing the amount of fat in your diet helps to reduce the use of digestive enzymes such as lipase and amylase. This will result in a reduction of pain, bloating, and diarrhea.

Whilst some foods do naturally contain enzymes, the evidence that they will help aid in digestion is limited. Certain foods like pineapples, mangoes, bananas, avocados, kimchi, ginger, sauerkraut, and kiwi contain natural enzymes.

Supplemental Digestive Enzymes

Supplemental digestive enzymes are enzymes that have been made commercially for supplemental use. These supplements are typically in the form of pills, powders, or liquids and are available over the counter or through prescription.

Different supplements contain different enzymes. So if you are considering taking supplemental enzymes, be sure to look at the label to determine which digestive enzyme the supplement contains.

Typically, digestive enzyme supplements contain a combination of enzymes such as lipase, protease, amylase, and lactase. Certain supplements that target a specific condition will normally contain enzymes that are related to that condition. For example, digestive enzymes for lactose intolerance contain lactase, and enzymes for fat malabsorption contain lipase, protease, and amylase.

How Are Digestive Enzyme Supplements Made?

Commercially, enzymes are extracted from plant or animal tissue. The enzyme is then purified and formed into a supplemental pill or liquid.

The source of the digestive enzymes depends on the company. Some companies focus on plant-based sources of enzymes, and other companies focus on animal-based sources of enzymes such as pigs.

With digestive enzymes, the only FDA regulated products are Pancreatic Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT) such as Creon, Pancreaze, and ZenPep. This form of therapy requires a prescription and is used by patients with diagnosed pancreatic enzyme insufficiency.

Enzymes can also be found over the counter but quantity and quality vary widely.

Do These Supplements Actually Work?

An image of a man looking at a bottle of supplementsIn the case of pancreatic enzyme insufficiency, digestive enzymes do have a place.

Research involving the use of digestive enzymes in the case of IBS and GIT irritation is still in the early phases. Some studies have found that taking a digestive enzyme before a meal could potentially help reduce symptoms of bloating and diarrhea. However, more research is needed. Bloating right after eating might be a sign of inadequate digestion, and taking enzymes have sometimes been shown to help reduce bloating post prandially.

How to Take Digestive Enzyme Supplements

Digestive enzymes should be taken just before a meal. That way they will be able to start digesting the food as it enters the stomach.

Some enzymes also depend on the food you are planning to eat. If you are taking a digestive enzyme that contains a specific enzyme such as lactase, then the supplement will only be needed when you consume sources of lactose such as dairy products. If you're taking a digestive enzyme supplement that contains a combination of enzymes, then it is best to take it with every meal.

The Gut, Inflammation, and Stress

Inflammation is your body's response to stress be it physical, emotional, or psychological stress. The GIT is one of the organs involved in regulating the inflammation response in the body, as part of the Inflammation Circuit. If this circuit becomes imbalanced, conditions such as leaky gut, IBS, and suppressed digestive functioning can occur. Chronic inflammation is common with Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) and chronic stress.

These conditions can cause symptoms that are similar to symptoms of having low levels of digestive enzymes.

Cautions of Digestive Enzymes

Since over the counter digestive enzymes are not regulated by the FDA, the quality and authenticity of the ingredients cannot be guaranteed. This could result in your body reacting to the digestive enzyme negatively rather than being helped by the digestive enzyme.

With some conditions, like AFS or chronic digestive disorders, the body is very sensitive, with the inflammation cycle being imbalanced. This can lead to an enhanced and potentially negative response to anything that enters the body.

If you are concerned about your enzymes and your body’s ability to digest food, you should first chat with your healthcare provider over your concerns. This way, your healthcare provider can order blood tests to determine the levels of enzymes needed and plan a course of action that will support your body rather than hinder it.

Final Thoughts

Digestive enzymes are naturally available within your body and help us to digest and utilize nutrients. Unless they have been reduced by illness, genetic, or lifestyle issues, your enzymes are likely to be healthy. They can also be high or low, so it’s important to get tested to make sure you know what you are dealing. Also, it can help to address the cause of low digestive enzyme levels, rather than simply taking a supplement.

Supplemental enzymes do have a place in helping to restore the levels of digestive enzymes in cases where levels are low. However, if levels are normal, there is no evidence that supplemental digestive enzymes will help to further support digestion.

If you are concerned about your digestive health and would like a program that’s right for you, talk to our team at +1 (626) 571-1234 for a free consultation or click here to use our Ask the Doctor system.

© Copyright 2023 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Whilst both help with digestion, digestive enzymes are proteins that assist in the breakdown of food. Probiotics are living microorganisms that live in your gut and help keep your gut healthy to support your enzymes. Although they support a healthy gut, they are not involved in the breakdown of food.

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