When you eat food, your body doesn’t absorb the food, it actually absorbs the nutrients in the food and in recent years we’re discovering that a good amount of digestive illness can be traced back to malabsorption of nutrients due to low levels of digestive enzymes. In this article, we’ll discuss the basics of digestive enzymes, what they are, what causes enzyme deficiency, and most importantly, the proper way to maintain a healthy level of digestive enzymes in your diet.
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What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are small proteins that act on specific molecules within foods to break them down into micro-/macro-nutrients.(2) As mentioned before, our digestive system does not absorb the food we eat, but rather the nutrients in the food we eat. For example, say you ate a dinner of steak & broccoli. Upon reaching the digestive tract, these things would be broken down by digestive enzymes into simple sugars, fatty acids/cholesterol, amino acids, along with a collection of various vitamins, minerals, and other plant compounds.
Most people are familiar with at least one digestive enzyme, lactase, which is responsible for breaking down the milk sugar lactose, a term you probably recognize. People who are missing the lactase enzyme are unable to digest milk, a condition known as “lactose-intolerant.”(2)
The digestion process begins in your mouth, where saliva starts breaking down your food. From there your food travels to your stomach, where stomach acid, primarily hydrochloric acid, begins breaking down proteins. Finally, the majority of digestive enzymes are made in the pancreas.(7)
When you eat, the pancreas receives a hormonal signal to release pancreatic juice into the small intestine. Pancreatic juice contains several digestive enzymes, as well as bicarbonate to neutralize the acid from your stomach. The enzymes work in the small intestine to break down the food so it can be absorbed.
The four main enzymes produced by the kidneys are:
- Amylases—break down starches/complex carbohydrates into simple sugars (such as glucose)
- Lipases—break down fats into fatty acids and glycerol
- Proteases/Peptidases—break down proteins into peptides and amino acids
- Nucleases—break nucleic acid into nucleotides(2)
Within the human digestive system, the main sites of digestion include the oral cavity, the stomach, and the small intestine. Digestive enzymes are secreted by several different exocrine glands:
- Salivary glands
- Secretory cells in the stomach
- Secretory cells in the pancreas
- Secretory glands in the small intestine
Additionally, there are a couple enzymes lining the small intestine, mostly responsible for breaking down of disaccharides into simple sugars for easier absorption into the bloodstream.
What causes insufficient enzyme production?
Several diseases lead to low/improper digestive enzyme production:
- Chronic pancreatic disease such as cystic fibrosis, pancreatic cancer, and pancreatitis(8)
- Brush border dysfunction, the most severe being long-standing Celiac disease, where the brush border is flattened or otherwise completely destroyed.(3)
Even when chronic disease is not present, other issues may affect production:
- Inflammation within the digestive tract
- Old age is thought to also correlate with decreased digestive function, though it’s debated whether this is a result of aging or aging poorly
- Low stomach acid
- Chronic stress has been coined as the most common reason for digestive issues. When In “fight or flight” mode, digestive enzyme production is of low priority, meaning chronic stress = impaired digestive enzyme output
Thankfully, digestive enzyme supplements are available on the market, which
Digestive Enzyme Benefits
Enzymes are among the most important structures in the entire body. They act as long-chain proteins that take on specific shapes, and essentially act as a key to unique locks throughout the body.(9) That being said, maintaining healthy levels of digestive enzymes is important for your body’s digestive health, and provides countless nutritional benefits.*
Here are 3 ways digestive enzymes can boost a sluggish digestion and amplify your nutrient absorption(5):
- Energy Support—improper or lethargic digestion denies the body of critical energy that could be otherwise directed towards various metabolic functions. Dr. Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD, a functional medicine practitioner based in Cleveland, Ohio, says “When you are utilizing your food properly, you may find you have more energy.” Digestive enzymes can also assist in the conversion of carbs into glucose–the primary sugar molecule that the body utilizes for energy. Any supplement that contains the enzyme amylase may boost efficient carbohydrate conversion.(10)
- Healthy inflammatory response—Bromelain, papain, pancreatin, trypsin, chymotrypsin, and rutin are all classified as proteolytic enzymes, and break down proteins into smaller polypeptides or amino acids. Alternatively known as proteases, these enzymes help digest the protein commonly found in meats, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs and cheese. Since proteases cause protein to be more bioavailable, they are linked to multiple protein interactions such as circulation, inflammatory response and immune function.(11)
- Healthy weight support—Recent research on lipase has proven the enzyme plays an important role in the breaking down of fat, and is especially promising in terms of influencing weight.(12) In a 2012 study, scientists were able to make lipase up to three times as effective through manipulating a molecular “switch” that turns the enzyme on and off. Overall, enzymes may help with weight loss by speeding digestion and supporting metabolism. An optimized digestive system can translate into less inflammation and toxic stagnation and therefore less excess weight.(3)
Additional benefits of digestive enzymes may include(5)*:
- Improved immunity
- Improved range of motion
- Scar tissue repair
- Reduces swelling/edema
- Improves skin health & elasticity
- Pain relief
- Cardiovascular improvement
- Faster recovery from trauma/injury
Digestive Enzymes Possible Role in IBS*
Irritable bowel syndrome(IBS) symptoms affect between 2%-30% of people, and it’s cause is currently unknown.(4) But what if digestive enzymes played a bigger role in IBS than previously thought, and if so, is it possible enzyme supplementation could be utilized more effectively in the treatment/prevention of this condition?
New studies suggest that by assisting in the breakdown of food and alleviating of certain digestive symptoms, enzyme supplements might provide a more effective approach to understanding IBS. Written by author Jacquelyn Cafasso, the article “Can Digestive Enzyme Supplements Treat IBS?” addresses this theory, and was recently medically reviewed by Judith Marcin, M.D. on July 19th, 2017.
The article contains a 49 person, double-blind study, each person having diarrhea-predominant IBS. Participants were randomly given either a pancreatic lipase supplement(or “PEZ”) for six meals, or a placebo supplement.
Afterwards, the groups were reversed. Next, participants had to select which drug they preferred. Roughly 61% of participants favored the pancreatic lipase over the placebo supplement.
Those who got the “PEZ” noticed a significant decrease in cramping,bloating, stomach rumbling, urge to defecate, loose stools, and pain, compared to the placebo group. The study, however, was limited by its small size and that its participants consisted of only those with diarrhea-predominant IBS.
Yet another study took a look at the use of a certain brand of supplement mixture marketed as Biontol that includes beta-glucan, inositol, and other digestive enzymes, but this time on a test population of 90 people. The supplement did indeed show decreased gas, bloating, and abdominal pain among the subjects, but the benefits ended there, showing no more effect on other IBS symptoms. The study didn’t include a true placebo group, though— about 50% of the test subjects didn’t receive anything at all over the course of the whole study.
The results are promising, but in order to produce more accurate research, larger, placebo-controlled trials are necessary.(4)
Benefits of Digestive Supplements
Digestive supplements assist in maintaining healthy enzyme levels, and allow your body to allocate additional energy to the rebuilding and general care of your tissues and vital organs. Additionally, taking protease enzymes supports the immune system by breaking down toxins in blood as well as free-radicals.
The body is capable of producing
When enzyme supplementation is paired with regular probiotic use, general digestive health sees multiple benefits, including*:
- Decreased occurrence of improper digestion(13)
- Increased nutrient absorption/replenishment
- Balanced pH
- Boosts cellular vitality, blood circulation, health, and general wellness
- Helps flush toxins from the body
- More effective breakdown of proteins
- Supports healthy weight management and body control
- Promotes a healthy nervous system, restful sleep, cardiovascular health, weight management, muscular health, immune system health, and multiple other body functions/systems(7)
Whether it’s Graves’ disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or one of the other hundreds of digestive diseases faced by tens of thousands of individuals yearly, relief from symptoms of multiple digestive diseases & conditions can be achieved simply through proper enzyme supplementation.* More and more people are reporting positive results by taking digestive enzyme supplements, and are using them to correct their natural deficiencies. It’s certainly feasible that you could benefit from them as well.Citations
- Montalto M., Curigliano V., Santoro L., Vastola M., Cammarota G., Manna R., Gasbarrini A., Gasbarrini G. Management and treatment of lactose malabsorption. World J. Gastroenterol. 2006;12(2):187–191. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4066025/
- Roxas M. The role of enzyme supplementation in digestive disorders. Altern. Med. Rev. 2008;13(4):307–314. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19152478
- Layer P., Keller J. Lipase supplementation therapy: standards, alternatives, and perspectives. Pancreas. 2003;26:1–7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12499909
- Domínguez-Muñoz J.E. Pancreatic enzyme therapy for pancreatic exocrine insufficiency. Curr. Gastroenterol. Rep. 2007;9(2):116–122. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3151413/