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What are Digestive Enzymes? and Do I need them?

As unpleasant as it may be to talk about, things like bloating, gas, and intestinal distress come about after eating. These facts are the reason many people supplement with digestive enzymes. Rather than simply gutting it out, no pun intended, digestive enzymes help our natural digestion when certain foods create intestinal problems. 

Digestive enzymes are basically exactly what they sound like. In supplements, digestive enzymes provide chemicals that assist your natural digestion processes.

For some people, digestive enzymes are a helpful supplement for then occasional bout indigestion. For others, digestive enzymes are a medical necessity. As many as 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases that make it necessary to take digestive enzymes. 

In this article, we will explore the chemistry of digestive enzymes. How do digestive enzymes work? What natural mechanisms are affected by digestive enzymes? Are digestive enzymes safe? Why do some people need digestive enzymes? And how best to use digestive enzymes in your diet?  

What are digestive enzymes and how do they work?

The body naturally produces a variety of enzymes that break down the foods we eat into usable component parts. These enzymes exist in the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and the entire digestive tract. The most important of these enzymes digest specific food substances. These include proteases (proteins), lipases (fats), and amylases (sugars). 

When the glands in the mouth, stomach, small intestine, gall bladder, and pancreas are functioning correctly, they breakdown and extract all the needed nutrients from the foods we eat. When these glands are not functioning properly, either because of damage or other disease-related issues, added digestive enzymes can help. 

Some foods naturally contain digestive enzymes. These can help if your digestive problems are not too severe. Foods that naturally contain digestive enzymes include: 

  • Honey, especially the raw kind, has amylase and protease.
  • Mangoes and bananas have amylase, which also helps the fruit to ripen.
  • Papaya has a type of protease called papain.
  • Avocados have the digestive enzyme lipase.
  • Sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage, picks up digestive enzymes during the fermentation process.

Obviously, the idea of eating something while you are suffering from some type of digestion problems may seem impossible. This is one of the reasons digestive enzyme supplements can be helpful.

Types of enzymes

Naturally, there are several types of digestive enzymes. Each of these breaks down a specific type of nutrient. The most prevalent types of digestive enzymes include:

Amylase

This breaks down carbohydrates. Amylase converts carbohydrates into sugars. It is found in the salivary glands and in the pancreas. Levels of amylase can serve as a diagnostic tool for diseases of the pancreas and other digestive tract diseases. 

Lactase

This type of enzyme breaks down sugar and lactose from dairy products. People who are lactose intolerant tend to lack the digestive enzyme. Lactose intolerance is one such condition that can be helped with a digestive enzyme supplement. 

Lipase

Lipase is responsible for breaking down fats. Lipase converts fats into fatty acids and glycerol (a type of sugar). Lipase is produced in the mouth, the stomach, and the pancreas.  

Maltase

This is secreted by the small intestine and breaks down maltose, which is another type of sugar. 

Proteases

These digestive enzymes break down proteins and convert them into amino acids. Most proteases are found in the digestive tract. There are several types of protease since proteins are complex: 

  • Carboxypeptidase A
  • Carboxypeptidase B
  • Chymotrypsin
  • Pepsin
  • Trypsin

Sucrase

This is found in the small intestine. Sucrase breaks down simple sugars like glucose and fructose. 

There are numerous digestive enzyme supplements. Some are intended for specific purposes like lactase supplements for people who are lactose intolerant. Others are broader in the way they work. If you think you may benefit from a digestive enzyme supplement, it is best to talk to your doctor about what types of foods are giving you difficulty. 

Digestive Enzymes Benefits

The most common reason people take digestive enzymes is to help with specific foods that they have trouble digesting. Lactose intolerance is one of the most common reasons people take digestive enzymes. Lactase helps break down dairy products for people who cannot digest them. 

People take digestive enzyme supplements for many reasons. However, there are some people who suffer from medical conditions that can be helped with digestive enzyme supplements. Here is a list of some of these conditions:

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

There is a digestive enzyme called pancrelipase that is thought to relieve the painful symptoms of IBS. In a recent study, patients were given a digestive enzyme that contained pancrelipase before they were given foods known to aggravate IBS symptoms. The study showed that people who had taken this digestive enzyme demonstrated significant improvement in their symptoms. This was a double-blind study in which a control group took a placebo. This group saw no improvement in symptoms. 

Still more, research on a multi-ingredient digestive enzyme that also contained beta-glucan and inositol showed drastic improvement in symptoms of IBS. These test subjects experienced significantly less abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence.  

Inflammatory Bowel Disease  

Also known as colitis, studies have found the digestive enzymes can provide relief for the painful inflammation that comes with this condition. A 2010 study found that the digestive enzyme bromelain decreased inflammation of the colon. 

It has also been found the people with IBD who also suffer from symptoms of IBS can benefit from digestive enzyme supplements. This combination often occurs with little to now inflammation and is called IBD-IBS syndrome. Patients with IBD-IBS syndrome who were given a combination of an anti-inflammatory medicine called mesalamine, which is the standard treatment for IBD, plus a digestive enzyme supplement that included Biointol, reported significantly reduced abdominal pain. These patients also experienced less bloating and flatulence after four weeks of taking the combined medicine and digestive enzyme supplement. 

Cancer

While digestive enzymes do not combat cancer itself, they do provide relief for people who are undergoing cancer treatment. For example, a recent study found that patients undergoing treatment for colorectal cancer find significant relief from nausea, and other symptoms that come with the disease and from the treatment.

This same study found that some patients saw a reversal in adverse reactions to treatment after taking a proteolytic enzyme supplement. 

Arthritis

Some people with osteoarthritis may benefit from taking the digestive enzyme supplement bromelain. A review of nine clinical trials found evidence that significant numbers of people with osteoarthritis experienced a reduction in pain while taking bromelain. The effectiveness of bromelain was found to be a par with a medication called diclofenac, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug routinely prescribed for people suffering from osteoarthritis. 

Are digestive enzymes safe?

Digestive enzymes are generally considered safe. We make most of the digestive enzymes we need in our own bodies, and the supplemental enzymes just complement the natural processes that our bodies are geared to perform. One of the biggest claims regarding digestive enzyme supplements is that people become dependent on them. What happens that digestive enzymes help the natural processes that are already going on in our bodies. As we age, the pathways by which these enzymes are made and secreted in the body can become clogged and slow down. Taking digestive enzymes over a lost period simply works with this natural process. 

Digestive Enzymes Side Effects

There are some potential side effects of taking digestive enzyme supplements. When you accelerate digestive functions and processes, you are also accelerating all the comes with these processes. For example, gas can be an inevitable by-product of eating certain foods. Digestive enzymes can make this problem worse.  

However, unless you are taking high doses of digestive enzyme supplements, the side effects are minimal at worst. Some things you may experience from taking digestive enzymes include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Some people may have an allergy to digestive enzymes. You should consult your doctor if you have concerns about allergies. 

Unless you're taking them in a very high dosage, the risks for most enzyme supplements are pretty minimal. Digestive enzymes may trigger a number of side effects, including stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. In addition, some people may experience allergic reactions to digestive enzymes.

Bromelain is a digestive enzyme that comes from pineapple. It has anti-platelet properties. If you take blood thinners, or if you experience anti-platelet activity, there is a risk of bleeding when taking bromelain. 

As with any nutritional supplement, you should use caution if you are pregnant or nursing.  

How to take digestive enzymes?

There is no standard dosage for digestive enzymes. Since many of the digestive enzyme supplements contain multiple ingredients and enzymes, the dosages can vary widely. It is generally recommended to being with a short trial period of about three weeks. Take small doses to see how they affect you. If you do not get the results you need, simply increase your dose in small increments. If you do not get any results, stop taking it. 

Digestive Enzymes FAQS

  • What are digestive enzymes? 

Digestive enzymes are naturally occurring chemicals that do the work of breaking down the food you eat into the nutrients your body needs to perform basic functions.

The most common digestive enzymes in the body exist in the mouth, esophagus, stomach, and the entire digestive tract. The most important of these enzymes digest specific food substances. These include proteases (proteins), lipases (fats), and amylases (sugars).  

  • Why would I need digestive enzyme supplements? 

Many people have difficulty digesting certain types of foods. One of the most common digestion problems is lactose intolerance. People with lactose intolerance generally lack the enzyme needed to properly digest dairy products.

Taking a digestive enzyme that helps break down lactose, a major component of dairy products can help people avoid the pain and discomfort that comes with the inability to properly digest dairy products. Other digestion problems require different digestive enzymes. 

There are also some serious conditions that require digestive enzymes. These include Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease. 

  • Are there risks associated with digestive enzyme supplements? 

Digestive enzymes are widely considered to be safe. Some people may experience gas, nausea, flatulence, and bloating when taking digestive enzyme supplements. Since digestive enzymes merely assist the natural metabolic processes of digestion, the only real danger is that you will accelerate these processes and become uncomfortable. 

  • How much digestive enzyme supplement should I take?

There is no standard dose of digestive enzyme supplements. It is best to take them in small doses to see how you may be affected by them. Increase the amount you take until you get the desired results. If you do not get the results you need, stop taking them. 

Wrapping things up

People take digestive enzyme supplements for a variety of reasons. Some common kinds of foods can be difficult to digest for some people. Things like legumes and bitter greens can cause painful bloating and gas, and the help of digestive enzymes can prevent or alleviate these problems.  

Other digestive problems can be more serious. Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Inflammatory Bowel Disease are extremely painful conditions that can make it hard for people to eat almost anything. People with IBS and IBD require digestive enzymes to maintain a healthy diet. 

Another reason people take digestive enzymes is that our digestive system tends to slow down as we age. Some natural digestive enzymes can get blocked, making it difficult to get the proper nutrients from the foods we eat. Digestive enzyme supplements can make it possible for people to live a healthier life into old age by assisting the body’s natural digestive processes. 

The important thing to keep in mind is that digestive enzyme supplements are natural chemical additions to a healthy diet. They simply assist the natural digestive functions by providing additional chemical help for your digestive system. 

While digestive enzyme supplements are generally considered safe, always exercise caution when beginning a new supplement. Se how the supplement affects you, and work from there. Remember that digestive supplements are not a remedy for serious medical issues. Always talk to your doctor about what is going on, and make sure digestive enzyme supplements are the correct course to take.

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