Let me start by saying that not everyone should be taking digestive enzyme supplements; and not all of them are created equal.
As someone who works in the health industry, I find that a lot people with digestive issues want to jump straight into using a supplement to combat their issues. Most of the time I would prefer they try other strategies first before resorting to supplements. Not to mention, that if used inappropriately, some supplements can be quite harmful.
So, let’s jump into talking about a few of the most common enzymes, what they do, and who should NOT take them.
What are digestive enzymes?
Technically speaking, “enzymes” are compounds that help critical biochemical reactions to happen in your body. These reactions can be anything, from burning food for energy, to making neurotransmitters like serotonin, to breaking down food we eat into smaller pieces that our guts can absorb.
As you can probably guess, “digestive enzymes” are enzymes that are specifically used for digestion. They are enzymes that our digestive system naturally makes and secretes when we eat.
Now, all of the macronutrients (carbs, protein & fat) we eat need to be broken down into their individual (smaller) parts so that we are able to properly absorb and digest them. If they aren’t broken down they are just too big to absorb properly which can lead to symptoms of fatigue, malnutrition, digestive distress, or a heap of other symptoms.
Amazingly our bodies rearrange these smaller parts and uses the to create other larger molecules that our bodies need. How cool is that?!
Here are some of the most common digestive enzymes you’ll see on product labels are:
- Amylase – Helps to break down starch into its sugars.
- Alpha-Galactosidase – Helps to break down specific “fermentable carbohydrates” into its sugars.
- Lactase – Helps to break down lactose into its sugars.
- Protease – Helps to break down protein into its amino acids.
- Bromelain and/or Papain – Help to break down protein into its amino acids.
- Lipase – Helps to break down fats into its lipids.
Who should consider taking digestive enzymes?
First and foremost I would always recommend that you see a qualified health care practitioner for their expert opinion on whether the issues your are having are related to digestion, and which, if any, supplements can help you.
Generally speaking, the most common digestive symptoms that enzymes *may* help with are bloating, cramping, and/or diarrhea. Particularly if it happens after eating certain foods (think lactose-intolerance symptoms after eating dairy or bloating after eating bread products).
One reason for these symptoms can be that food particles are not being broken down completely, and that these larger pieces travel further down the digestive tract to the microbiota where those little critters start breaking them down themselves. And this is definitely cause a whole lot of trouble for some people.
Don’t get me wrong, a healthy gut microbiota is absolutely essential for good health. And more and more research is showing just how it can affect not only our digestion, but also our immune system, and even our mood.
What do I need to know? – Medical conditions
It should go without saying that you need to be reading the label of any products you take, and take them as directed. Especially if they’re not specifically recommended for you by your health care practitioner who knows you and your history.
Here are two super important things to be aware of:
1 – Digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates into sugars are not recommended for pregnant/breastfeeding women or diabetics.
The reason for this is that taking them breaks down more carbohydrates into sugars than your body normally would on its own; therefore anyone who has or is at risk of blood sugar issues should take caution.
2 – If you are someone who has an ulcer, or you are taking blood-thinners or anti-inflammatories, or if you’re having surgery you should avoid any digestive enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids because of possible adverse interactions.
The reason for this is the digestive enzymes that break down protein are thought to cause or make ulcers worse. On top of this they also have the ability to “thin” the blood and prevent normal clotting.
What do I need to know? – Possible Side effects
Using digestive enzyme supplements for a longer period of time may call for an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner as there may be strategies other than daily supplementation that can serve you better.
If you find that your symptoms get worse, or even if they don’t seem to get any better, you should probably stop using them and see your health practitioner.
Allergies are always something you should be aware of, so if you know or even suspect you may be allergic, then you should avoid them.
And, as always, keep supplements away from children.
Before considering a digestive enzyme supplement
You should not be jumping into supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis, or trying a few other strategies first.
My first recommendation for digestive distress is simple. Relax more, eat slowy, and chew food more thoroughly. This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract.
The second step would be to have a go at eliminating certain problematic foods from your diet (dairy & gluten, for example) and see if that makes a difference for you.
While a lot of supplements are safe to be using, they’re not suitable for everyone.
I recommend that you:
- Read your labels carefully (who should take them, how to take them, when to stop taking them).
- If you have a medical condition or are taking medications speak with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any supplements.
- If you want expert advice on whether a specific supplement is for you, speak with a qualified health care practitioner.
Recipe (food containing bromelain & papain): Tropical (digestive) smoothie
1 cup pineapple, diced
1 cup papaya, diced
1 banana, chopped
1 cup coconut milk
ice if desired
Put all ingredients(except ice) into the blender and blend. Add ice if desired.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: The levels of enzymes in whole pineapple and papaya aren’t as concentrated as taking them in a supplement; so if you’re not allergic to these delicious fruits, you can try this smoothie.
Natural Medicines Database, Bromelain, Papain, Retrieved January 21, 2017 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com