Do you get the feeling of heaviness, discomfort, bloating and indigestion after certain meals? Oftentimes this discomfort is ocasional and will resolve within a couple of hours. If this sounds a lot like what you are going through, you may be suffering from a lack of digestive enzymes.
In order to receive the benefits of healthy eating, the body must be able to properly break down the food so that it can be absorbed. However, when the cells that line the gastrointestinal (GI) tract become inflamed, digestive enzymes cannot be utilized to their capacity. Understanding how digestive enzymes work can help to narrow down when and how to use them.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
The body breaks down food with something called enzymes. Enzymes are proteins that act as little scissors to chop large food components into smaller building blocks so that these can be absorbed into the body through the bloodstream.
Digestive enzymes are made in the mouth, stomach, pancreas (largest producer) and the small intestine. A lack of enzymes at any part of the GI tract can cause impairment further down the digestion process. When digestive enzymes are lacking is when we feel the heartburn, bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea.
There are several different types of digestive enzymes, each with its own role in digesting certain types of foods:
Protease - breaks down proteins into amino acids
Lipase - breaks down fats/lipids into fatty acids and glycerol
Amylase - breaks down carbohydrates/starches into sugars
Proteases are the enzymes used to break down protein into amino acids so that the body can absorb them. Proteases made in the body include: pepsin from the stomach (needs Hcl to be activated) and trypsin/chymotrypsin in the pancreas. Once these enzymes break down proteins from food, amino acids can be absorbed into the body.
Two of the most common protease enzymes found in supplements include, bromelain from pineapple and papain from papaya.
Carbohydrate Digesting Enzymes
Amylase is the enzyme used to break down starches. Starches include wheat, corn, potatoes and rice. These are broken down into sugars so the body can absorb nutrients from these foods. Amylase is mainly found in the saliva where it starts its job. Some amylase can also be found in the small intestine.
Lactase is responsible for breaking down lactose, which is a sugar that is found in milk. Not enough lactase production can lead to lactose intolerance.
Sucrase is the enzyme that breaks down table sugar.
Alpha-galactosidase breaks down sugars from cruciferous veggies and beans which are a little harder to break down. If these foods are not broken down before it reaches the colon, one can experience intense bloating and gas which is what beans are known for!
Amylase, lactase, sucrase and galactosidase are all found in supplements.
Lipase is the enzyme that breaks down triglycerides into its smaller constituents - fatty acids and glycerol. Bile is then released from the gallbladder to help further break down fats. Bile is especially important after a high fat meal.
How Do I Know If My Body Needs More Enzymes?
The human body is capable of producing digestive enzymes when the gastrointestinal system is functioning well and we are also able to obtain them from some of the foods we eat. However, enzyme production can decline due to: age, gut inflammation and food choices. When the gastrointestinal system is compromised these enzymes aren’t being as readily produced and need a little extra support.
What enzymes decline, food is not properly digested. All the food that was not digested in the small intestine ends up in the colon. This leads to bacterial fermentation in the colon which produces the common symptoms of gas, bloating and possibly changes in frequency and appearance of stool. When this happens, nutrients are not being absorbed into the body leading to many deficiencies and the growth of “bad bacteria” can overpopulate leading to an unhealthy balance in the colon.
The best way to tell if the body needs some extra support through digestive enzymes is to analyze stool contents in a laboratory. Stool testing can help to measure enzyme production and secretion.
Besides testing, the best way to know if you lack digestive enzymes is a feeling of fullness or heaviness after small meals and if you notice undigested food particles in your stool.
Do I Need To Take Enzymes Forever?
Digestive enzymes can offer a temporary boost and provide temporary relief from digestive discomfort while trying to identify the underlying cause of the digestive issues. They are meant to replace those that the gut is not able to produce while giving it a break and a chance to heal. However, once the gut has had the chance to heal, the enzymes should start producing on its own again. After digestion is improved and diet changes have been made the need for enzyme supplementation should be reduced.
Thus, it is best to keep digestive enzymes temporarily. Overdosing on digestive enzymes can actually prevent the GI tract from establishing balance and will reduce enzyme production over time.
How To Pick A Digestive Enzyme?
It is important to remember that not all enzymes are made the same. There are plant based enzymes or pancreatic/animal based enzymes.
Pancreatic enzymes are derived from the pancreas of an animal, mainly pigs and cows. These are limited to where they can work in the digestive tract, as they require a higher pH levels to remain active. This means that digestive enzymes from animals are only able to be active in the large intestine where there is a high pH and not in the stomach where there is a low pH. Thus, they must be enteric coated to pass through the stomach and remain active. Animal based enzymes are useful for the pancreatin which can help in conditions like pancreatitis.
Plant based enzymes do not require enteric coating and are pH stable and come from any type of plant. Since they can work at a broader pH level they are active throughout the digestive tract - stomach and small intestines.
Ultimately, it is very important to look for a comprehensive digestive enzyme supplement one that is a blend of all the enzymes like, protese, amylase, lipase, papain, pepsin and bile.
When To Take Digestive Enzymes?
Digestion and enzyme release starts with the senses of smell, taste, and touch. In order for digestion to be optimal the body needs to be in the parasympathetic mode, also known as the “rest or digest” mode. When you are in this relaxed state is when the saliva, pancreas and small intestine start getting enzymes ready.
Eating in a hurry or anxious state of mind can actually prevent these enzymes from being released and can really hinder digestion. So, alongside digestive enzymes keep two things in mind to help digestion: (1) Chew your food 15-20x (2) Always eat sitting down and focusing solely on the food you are about to eat.
Supplemental digestive enzymes can be very helpful in alleviating digestive disorders. Such conditions include: pancreatitis, gallbladder removal, casein & gluten intolerance, food allergies, celiac disease lactose intolerance.
Enzymes should always be taken before eating. Keep in mind large doses of enzymes on an empty stomach can actually erode the gut lining, so be sure to speak to a healthcare practitioner prior to usage.
Naturally Increasing Digestive Enzymes Through Food
If you are looking to increase your digestive enzymes through foods, below are some options:
- Pineapple - contains bromelain enzyme which helps to break down proteins
- Papaya - Contains papain which helps to break down proteins into amino acids. Ensure that papaya is ripe and uncooked for the best results!
- Mango - Contains amylase which helps to break down carbohydrates into sugars
- Honey - Contains amylases and proteases to help break down carbohydrates and proteins
- Banana - Contains amylase and glucosidases to help break down carbohydrates
- Avocado - Contains lipase which helps to break down fats into glycerol and fatty acids. Lipase enzymes can help after a high-fat meal!
- Adding some of these foods to your diet can help to improve digestion and relieve symptoms of discomfort.
Talk to your ND to see which digestive enzymes are best for you. Once again, digestive enzymes are best to take short term to help the gut recover. Keep in mind that if food is not digested optimally it can lead nutrient malabsorption and symptoms of bloating, gas and stool changes.
Written by: Dr. Saira Kassam, ND | 2017
** Disclaimer: The advice in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the care of a Naturopathic physician.