As a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner, I find that many people with digestive issues want to jump straight into using a supplement – I know I did when I was struggling in the dark withy my symptoms! It’s important to know that sometimes simple eating habits can make all the difference. See my article on 5 natural ways to banish bloating. and that some supplements can be harmful if used inappropriately. So, let’s dive into a few of the common digestive enzymes, what they do, and what to consider before taking a new supplement.
What are digestive enzymes?
Technically, “enzymes” are compounds that help critical biochemical reactions to happen in your body. These reactions can be anything, from helping to make 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.
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 in the small intestine. 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 issues.
Digestive enzymes can be found in the saliva, pancreas, small intestine and stomach. In fact the digestive enzyme Amylase found in saliva is the very first enzyme to breaking down our food when released while we chew! One of the many reasons chewing is SO vital for healthy digestion.
The most common digestive enzymes you’ll see on product labels are:
- Amylase – Helps to break down carbohydrates
- Lipase – Helps to break down fats into its lipids.
- Protease – Helps to break down protein into its amino acids.
Additionally you may see things like:
- Alpha-Galactosidase – Helps to break down specific “fermentable carbohydrates” into its sugars. This is particularly helpful when you have trouble breaking down beans and legumes
- Lactase – Helps to break down lactose into its sugars.
- DPP-IV for gluten intolerance
- Bromelain and/or Papain – Help to break down protein into its amino acids.
Who should consider taking digestive enzymes?
I would always recommend that you see a qualified health care practitioner for an expert opinion on whether your issues can be related to digestion, and which, if any, supplements can help you. You can also make an appointment to see me as a jumping off point.
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.
Ultimately, I’m a BIG fan of testing and NOT guessing. I personally have spent hundreds of dollars on supplements that didn’t work for me because one symptom can be related to so many different things. With my clients we run a GI MAPS test to see if they have specific markers for digestion that are impaired like Elastase-1 and Steatocrit (measurements of pancreatic enzymes and fat digestion). If these are off AND the person is having bloating, digestive discomfort, diarrhea we may decide together to add a comprehensive digestive enzyme support for a few months while addressing other pathogens found in the GI MAPS that could be contributing to the mal-digestion. This approach ensures that we are getting to the root cause of someone’s chronic digestive issues & not using a digestive enzyme as a bandaid to a bigger program
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 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; so, anyone at risk of blood sugar issues should take 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.
This is why it’s so critical that you work with your care team to make the right decisions about supplementation.
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. Long term supplementation is not recommended as it can dilute your bodies natural ability to produce these enzymes. Further, when we have a dysfunction in our bodies, the question should always be, WHY are we having this issue and not “let me take this pill to mask the symptom”
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
You shouldn’t just jump to supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis, or trying a few basic lifestyle strategies first. My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax more, eat slower, and chew more thoroughly. This helps your body to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract. The second step would be to talk to your care team about whether eliminating common irritating foods from your diet may help. In my experience working with over 200 women on their digestive health the foods that are the most inflammatory for them are dairy and gluten. They may also have trouble digesting GMO corn, Oats, beans, legumes and grains. My experience has shown that if we cook our grains well, even opting for sprouted grain and legumes this helps a great deal and doesn’t result in removal of a food group that is otherwise healthy for many. Additionally, when I see someone who has trouble digesting multiple foods we really must look upstream to see if there is bacterial overgrowths, SIBO, or other issues like H.Pylori.
While many supplements are safe products, they’re not all for everyone.
I recommend that 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.
- Try your hand at simple lifestyle changes like chewing, eating slower or taking deep breaths before you eat to calm down your nervous system.
- GI MAP testing may be helpful for you to know exactly what is at play for your individual tummy!
Tropical (digestive) Smoothie Recipe
- 1 cup pineapple, diced
- 1 cup papaya, diced
- 1 banana, chopped
- 1 cup coconut milk
- ice if desired
Put all ingredients (except ice) into the blender and blend. Add ice if desired.