Digestive Enzymes | What are they? Why do you use them?
Digestive enzymes might be the most overlooked, under-appreciated part of a healthy digestive system. Chances are, you’ve given them little thought. Perhaps, you don’t even know what they are.
About 20% of the US population is known to have a digestive issue, or about 60-70 million people. The percentage continues to grow in the US and across the world. A lack of enzymes contributes to these digestive problems.
Symptoms can be as subtle as burping or gas following meals, or more extreme like constant diarrhea or periodic pain.
Exercise, increased core body temperature, injury, stress, and certain diseases increase the use of enzymes. Aging, and certain diseases, like pancreatitis, decrease production. Whether you experience an increased need, or decreased production, the result is the same. Enzyme insufficiency.
Digestive enzyme insufficiency is linked to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, hyperthyroidism, Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, excessive exercise, and diets high in processed foods.
My Own Messed Up Gut
This was one of the most challenging articles I’ve ever written. Normally, I can write a new article in three to five days, but this one took a couple of weeks. I found myself going down all sorts of rabbit holes, fascinated with the significant role enzymes play in our health. My notes for this article looked more like notes that could fill a whole book.
Part of the reason I did so much more reading was that this is a personal topic. I’ve had my own digestive challenges in the past, and I have a family history of it as well.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I got some control over my own issues. Prior to that, my stomach would feel irritated and look distended for hours after each meal.
I had horrible gas at night. Every night. If I were single, I probably wouldn’t have cared as much, but when my gorgeous wife is sitting across the room and has to bear it, it’s kind of embarrassing.
I’m convinced my issues were enzyme-related, and feel much better today, although I do still have challenges once in a while.
The articles I write come from a combination of education, experience, and experimentation. This one especially so.
All that said, I kept cutting stuff out of this article to make it short enough for you to read it when you saw it. If it was too long, I figured you’d set it aside and not come back. I think there is enough in this article for you to understand importance of enzymes for optimal health, yet brief enough that you’ll read through the whole thing.
What are Digestive Enzymes?
Enzymes speed up the rate of virtually every reaction in the body. You use more than 5000 different enzymes every day. Most of those enzymes are metabolic enzymes, responsible for everything from your thoughts to the thickness of your blood.
A relatively small group of your 5000 enzymes convert the food you eat, to nutrients that fuel and build your body.
Without digestive enzymes, you wouldn’t break down protein, fat, and carbohydrates, and your foods would pass through you undigested. Along the way, the food would destroy the lining of your intestines, cause immune reactions and cause inflammation. Nutritionally, you’d starve, no matter how much food you ate.
Digestive enzymes fall into three different categories, based on the macronutrient they act on:
- Proteases and peptidases: Convert protein to peptides and amino acids. They also act on other parts of the body to support normal immune function, inflammation levels, tissue repair and blood viscosity.
Common proteases and peptidases: Bromelain, Pancreatin, Papain, Peptidase, Protease, Trypsin
- Carbohydrases: Convert carbohydrates to glucose and fructose.
Common carbohydrases: Alpha-galactosidase, Amylase, Cellulase, Diastase, Glucoamylase, Invertase, Lactase, Phytase
- Lipases: Convert fat to fatty acids.
Common lipases: Lingual Lipase, Gastric Lipase, Pancrealipase
Proteases and Peptidases (Proteolytic Enzymes)
Proteases (also known as proteolytic enzymes) act on protein in the digestive system. However, they also affect many other areas of the body.
You might recall from the article, Amino Acids: How to Choose and Use Wisely, the average healthy adult breaks down 250-300 grams of protein, throughout the body every day. Your body does this to replace damaged or aged tissues with new ones. Proteolytic enzymes play an important role in this process.
They also help maintain healthy inflammation levels, modulate pain and support normal immune function.
Because the body can produce a limited number of proteolytic enzymes, it’s possible for demand to exceed supply. Following an injury or extreme physical stress, proteolytic enzymes can be directed to the tissue repair, leaving the digestive system without enough to complete digestion.
This could be why athletes often deal with digestive issues. If they don’t get extra proteolytic enzymes through food or supplements, their available enzymes take part in tissue repair, leaving them short on what they need for proper digestion.
On the other hand, in some people, enzymes are directed to digestion, leaving the rest of their body short. In this case, inflammation could get out of hand, or tissues and joints could get irritated.
When supplemented in the diet, proteolytic enzymes have been shown to reduce stiffness and exercise-related soreness.*
European practitioners regularly recommend proteolytic enzymes to support overall health, maintain normal inflammatory levels, to assist with recovery from injury or surgery, to relieve symptoms of arthritis, and to complement cancer therapy.*
Because food sensitivities are usually an immune reaction to a certain protein, which is not digested properly, increasing your enzyme intake may help with food sensitivities.*
For example, proline is a protein found in wheat and casein. Without the enzymes necessary to break down proline, it enters the small intestine intact, and can damage the tissues of the intestines and create an autoimmune response.
Proline can also have opioid-like effects on the nervous system. Autism and proline seem to have a strong connection, which is why parents of autistic children are often encouraged to keep their kids on a strict gluten-free and dairy-free diet.
Two specific proteases, prolyl endopeptidase (PEP), and dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV) have been shown to help break down proline, and could help reduce the effects of this protein on the body.
However, even enzyme supplements don’t seem to be powerful enough to completely breakdown prolines. If you’re gluten-sensitive or allergic to gluten, you’re better off staying 100% gluten-free.
Proteases and peptidases help digest protein when it reaches the stomach and in the small intestine.
For proteolytic enzymes to effectively convert dietary protein to peptides and amino acids in the stomach, the stomach must maintain a highly acidic environment. If you have low stomach acid, due to genetics, stress, or medications, you basically make your proteolytic enzymes inactive.
As a result, protein can pass from the stomach to the small intestine without proper digestion, which can cause food sensitivities and increase inflammation.
This is why acid-reducing drugs are not intended for long-term use.
Read More: High Protein Diets: What You Need to Know.
As the name suggests, carbohydrases speed the breakdown of carbohydrates. Amylase helps convert starch to glucose. Cellulase helps break down some plant fiber.
The two most researched carbohydrases are lactase and alpha-galactosidase.
Lactase helps you break down lactose, or milk sugar. Most adults are deficient in this enzyme, which makes for a double-whammy against dairy. Casein, one of the dairy proteins contains proline as I mentioned above, and then most people don’t have lactase to break down lactose.
Lactose consumption often leads to bloating, gas, or diarrhea. Two-thirds of the adult population totally lacks the lactase enzyme.
It kind of makes you wonder if adult humans are supposed to consume dairy, doesn’t it? That’s an entire article of its own for another day.
If you do choose to consume dairy, and you do have issues with lactose, supplementing with lactase can help you avoid some of the digestive issues.*
Also, if you can get your hands on raw, unpasteurized dairy, it’ll have the enzymes in it to help you digest it. Lactase is destroyed during the processing of conventional milk.
Alpha-galactosidase assists with the breakdown of legumes, cruciferous vegetables and some grains. If you’re low on this enzyme, you’ll experience gas following meals with these foods. You know how the poem goes…
Beans, beans, the magical fruit.
The more you eat, the more you toot.
The more you toot, the better you feel.
Let’s have beans for every meal.
Whoever came up with that poem was probably low on alpha-galactosidase.
Carbohydrases act on carbohydrates in the mouth, the upper part of the stomach, and the small intestine.
Low levels of lipase enzymes are seen in those with late-stage pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis. Supplemental lipase is often recommended in those with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
Of the three enzyme types, decreased lipase production has the potential to be the most problematic. If you do not properly digest fat, it will completely pass through you, a condition known as “steatorrhea.”
Pancreatitis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Celiac disease, Cystic fibrosis, Zollinger-Elilison syndrome, Giardiasis, and Graves disease or hyperthyroidism can all lead to Steatorrhea.
Symptoms of steatorrhea include diarrhea, foul-smelling stool, weight loss, jaundice, distended stomach, abdominal pain, and/or gas and rumbling of the stomach.
Enzyme replacement often resolves, or at least reduces these issues.
How to Increase Digestive Enzyme Levels
Raw foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, raw milk and butter, and even raw meat contain their own enzymes. Nature not only provides the food, but also gives us many of the enzymes we need to digest the food once we eat it.
However, most of the foods in the modern diet are cooked and even sterilized, destroying the enzymes the foods once had.
Even if a raw steak is healthier for me, I have no interest in eating it raw. I’ll eat sushi, but I draw the line at raw beef, chicken, or turkey.
You probably shouldn’t eat all your vegetables raw, as that can be problematic. Just eat a mix of raw and cooked vegetables (and if you’re not eating any vegetables, you’re really dropping the ball on your health).
When eating meat, less cooking is better. A well-done steak will be much more difficult to digest than a steak cooked medium-raw.
Even if you do everything right, you also must face an aging body. Age causes a reduction in enzyme production.
In fact, while researching this topic, I was surprised by how often practitioners and researchers mentioned that maintaining optimal enzyme levels can slow the aging process. It does make sense when you understand how important enzymes are to getting the nutrients out of the foods we eat.
Increasing your nutrient intake would likely support better health.
So, eat more raw food, don’t overcook your food, and be smart about the physical stress you put your body through.
I do believe we’d benefit from supplementing with digestive enzymes, though. It’s just unlikely that we’ll be able to get enough from food alone, to make up for the gap between what we need, and what the body can produce on its own.
In my opinion, most people would benefit from a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme supplement. “Broad-spectrum” means it includes a mix of proteases and peptidases, carbohydrases and lipases.
If you have trouble with a specific protein or carbohydrate, like lactose, you can certainly take lactase by itself. However, in our modern-day world, you’ll probably do better to just take a high-quality digestive enzyme supplement, that includes a variety of enzymes.
The only contraindication I’ve seen with enzymes relates to blood thinners. Since proteolytic enzymes have the potential to thin the blood (which is normally a good thing), they may amplify the effects of a prescription blood thinner. If you use a blood thinner, just check in with your doctor. He or she might need to modify your prescription, if you notice that the enzymes are having a similar effect on your blood.
The digestive enzymes are a great complement to my diet, which is mostly animal protein and vegetables (some of which are raw).
There you have it. A “brief” overview of enzymes and why they’re so important to your long-term health.