Enzymes are often in the news like the one recently discovered that helps turn air into electricity. We’re not going to talk about that particular enzyme—although it is fascinating—but instead about the enzymes in you. More specifically, we will explore the world of digestive enzymes.
Enzymes in a nutshell
Enzymes are proteins found in all living organisms that behave in ways different from other proteins. While proteins found in eggs and beans generally provide cell structure and support for your bones, skin, and other tissues, regulate body processes, and transport materials throughout the body, enzyme proteins have a different task. They are catalysts that make various biochemical reactions occur rapidly—in fact, several million reactions per second. Enzymes are able to perform quickly without being used up or changed in the process.
Over time, however, enzymes do eventually wear out. This is true of all enzymes, including those involved in digestion. That’s one major reason why digestive problems can be more troublesome and common as we get older.
Enter digestive enzymes
You need specific enzymes for good digestion. The three main digestive enzymes that break down carbs, fats, and proteins are:
- Amylase digests carbs.
- Lipase processes fats.
- Protease metabolizes proteins.
Lactase is also an enzyme that digests milk sugar found in dairy foods. Many people who are lactose intolerant don't produce this enzyme.
Your digestive enzymes kick into action in your mouth when you begin to chew. Once you swallow, digestive enzymes in your stomach and intestinal tract continue the digestive process. Digestive enzymes are necessary to metabolize food into tiny components (nutrients) that are absorbed into your bloodstream.
Raw foods typically contain lots of enzymes. On the top of your menu should be fresh fruits (especially citrus and berries), cruciferous vegetables, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. However, unless you are a regular consumer of raw foods (preferably organic), you may not be getting the enzymes your body needs. That’s because enzymes are destroyed in any food that has been heated to 118 degrees or higher. That not only eliminates the enzymes in the veggie kabobs on the grill and the fresh sautéed greens you made for dinner but also all canned and otherwise processed foods you may eat.
To help ensure you are getting all the digestive enzymes your body needs, especially as you get older, supplements taken before meals can be most helpful. But diet deficiencies and aging are not the only reasons why you may need digestive enzyme supplements. Individuals who have diseases of the pancreas (e.g., diabetes, cystic fibrosis, chronic pancreatitis), inflammatory bowel disease, nutrient malabsorption (especially in elderly people), ulcerative colitis, insufficient stomach acid, lactose intolerance, hypothyroidism, stomach cancer, functional dyspepsia, irritable bowel syndrome, or who have had gastric bypass for obesity often need digestive enzyme supplementation.
Symptoms of digestive enzyme deficiency
If you are experiencing the following symptoms, you may have a digestive enzyme deficiency. Your healthcare provider may want to conduct tests after considering your lifestyle, symptoms, and any other health conditions you may have.
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Fatty or oily stools
- Abdominal pain
Taking digestive enzymes
Enzyme supplements are safe for the majority of users when taken as directed. However, side effects may occur, including upset stomach, diarrhea, nausea, gas, bloating, headache, swelling, dizziness, changes in bowel movements, changes in blood sugar, and allergic reactions (e.g., rash, itching, difficulty breathing, wheezing, swelling of the mouth, face, tongue, or throat, and red peeling skin. Digestive enzymes also may interact with some medications (e.g., warfarin, oral anti-diabetic medications, and others), so be sure to check with your doctor before taking these supplements if you are taking any type of medication, over-the-counter or prescription.
When choosing which digestive enzymes to take, you should choose one that addresses your specific needs if you want results. Here are a few things to consider:
- For general digestive health, choose a supplement that includes enzymes that address fat, carb, and protein digestion.
- If you have gallbladder problems, choose a supplement that contains bile salts and more lipase.
- If you have issues with sugars in dairy foods, select a product that has lactase.
- If you have inflammatory or autoimmune conditions, consider a supplement that contains protease.
- Take digestive enzyme supplements several hours apart from calcium or magnesium antacids, because the combination may reduce the effectiveness of the enzymes.
- Take digestive enzymes about 10 minutes before each meal or with the first bite.
Digestive enzymes vs probiotics
Are digestive enzymes similar to probiotics? That’s a great question. Probiotics, which are also known as beneficial bacteria, perform both similar and different functions than enzymes, and using them together (some products contain both digestive enzymes and probiotics) can enhance digestion. For example, probiotics can help aid digestion by restoring balance to the microbiome of the gut. The beneficial bacteria also can ease symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, and stomach upset. An added benefit of probiotics is to boost immune function.
Digestive enzymes can significantly help with digestion in a wide array of circumstances. Discuss your unique digestive needs with a knowledgeable professional so you can choose the best supplement for you.
And the enzyme that changes air into energy? You can check that out here.