If you suffer from acid reflux, gas, bloating, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, malabsorption, diarrhea or constipation, then digestive enzymes can definitely help.
As a nutrition coach, I speak with many people with digestive issues who want to take a supplement that will have the fastest impact on relieving their digestive issues. And many times I suggest they speak to their doctors about digestive enzymes as the one of the first supplements to consider. I know for a few of us in our family, digestive enzymes have played an important role in helping to restore good digestion for different reasons.
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 they all end with “ase”.
"Digestive enzymes” are specifically those enzymes we use for digestion. They’re enzymes that our digestive system naturally makes and secretes when we eat. But sometimes, due to our stomach acid not being acid enough, those enzymes needed for proper digestion are not excreted or triggered, and that's where we get into gut trouble and our inability to digest correctly.
All of 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. If they're not broken down, we don’t absorb them properly and that can result in 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 diarrhea. Particularly if it happens after eating certain foods (think lactose-intolerance symptoms after eating dairy).
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 microbiota where those little critters start breaking them down themselves. And this is definitely troublesome for certain people. Especially those with a leaky or compromised gut.
A healthy gut microbiota is absolutely essential for good health, I can't say that enough. A growing body of research is showing just how it can affect not only our digestion, but also our immune system, and even our mood, I go deeper on that here
What do you need to know? - Medical conditions
Of course, read the label of any products you take, and take them as directed, especially if they’re not specifically recommended for you by your 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; making your blood sugar plummet in a short period of time therefore, anyone at risk of blood sugar issues should take them 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 you 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 always a possibility, 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
My first recommendation for digestive distress, if you're not already doing so, would be to relax more, eat slower, and chew more thoroughly. This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract. This is called mindful eating; just be present.
The second step would be to try eliminating the troublesome foods from your diet like dairy and gluten, for example, and see if that helps. But if you suffer from digestion issues, you can certainly talk to your health care practitioner about enzymes and which ones are right for you.
For the most part, I think that we can all benefit from the right kinds of digestive enzymes from time to time. I know for my husband who doesn't have a gallbladder, he needs to be on them forever to help break down fat and protein.
Here is a natural way to get some of those helpful digestive enzymes right away...
Tropical Digestive Smoothie
Serves 1 to 2
It’s a bit heavy on the tropical fruit, so if you’re trying to lower your sugar intake, put a bit less of each fruit.
½ cup pineapple, diced
½ cup papaya, diced
1/2 banana, chopped
1 cup coconut milk
Ice if desired
Mix all ingredients in the blender. Add ice if desired.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: The levels of enzymes in whole pineapple and papaya aren’t as concentrated as taking them in a supplement; so if you’re not allergic to these delicious fruits, you can try this smoothie.
'til next time!
Natural Medicines Database, Bromelain, Papain, Retrieved January 21, 2017 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com