All About Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzyme supplements can be a helpful tool for individuals with digestive distress. These are used to give your body extra tools to break down foods to make the easier to digest and absorb their nutrients. I have prescribed them for clients and even use them myself from time to time. My approach to supplementation is to prescribe them modestly and for a temporary period to aide in healing. It is never a long-term plan to pop pills. I would be no different than an over-prescribing Dr in that sense. My goal is to be able to help people heal their digestive system to a robust state where they can enjoy beautiful balanced meals without distress or relying on a supplement for their digestion.
As a practitioner, I find that many people with digestive issues want to jump straight into using a supplement. Pop a pill and it will solve all your issues, right? Supplements can be helpful at times, but I would rather try other strategies first. Focusing on how making changes in your diet can help heal your gut naturally without having to rely on an outside source. Not to mention, that some supplements can be harmful if used inappropriately.
Here is a closer look at common digestive enzymes, what they do, and who should NOT take them.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Technically, “enzymes” are compounds that help critical biochemical reactions to happen in your body. These reactions can be anything, from making neurotransmitters like serotonin, to burning food for energy, to breaking down food we eat into smaller pieces that our guts can absorb.
Enzymes end with “ase”. Lactase as an example is the enzyme that helps break down lactose.
Digestive enzymes are specific enzymes used for digestion. Our digestive system naturally makes and secretes digestive enzymes when we eat.
All the “macronutrients” we eat (carbs, protein & fat) need to be broken down into smaller parts so that we can properly absorb and digest them. They’re just too big otherwise. If we don’t absorb them properly, we can get symptoms of fatigue, malnutrition, digestive distress, including bloating, cramps, diarrhea or constipation and a host of other symptoms.
It is these smaller parts that our body amazingly rearranges and uses to create other larger molecules that our body needs.
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?
Before taking any new supplements, I will always recommend that you see a qualified health care practitioner for an expert opinion on whether your issues can be related to digestion, and which, if any, supplements can help you.
In general, 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).
One reason for these symptoms can be that food particles are not broken down properly, and the larger pieces travel further down the digestive tract to the microbiota where those little critters start breaking them down themselves. This can be troublesome for certain people.
A healthy gut microbiota is essential for good health. If the gut microbes are put into a position to try to break down foods, they are not available to support our health in the ways they are meant to such as absorbing nutrients. 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
Of course, you should read 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 your history.
Here are two critical things to be aware of:
1 – Digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates into sugars are not recommended for diabetics, or pregnant/breastfeeding women.
This is because taking them breaks down more carbohydrates into sugars than your body normally would; so, anyone at risk of blood sugar issues should take caution.
2 – When it comes to enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids, there are a few people who should avoid them because of potential interactions. That is if you have an ulcer, or are taking blood-thinners or anti-inflammatories, or if you’re having surgery.
The reason is because the digestive enzymes that break down protein are thought to cause or worsen ulcers, as well as can “thin” the blood and prevent normal clotting.
What Do I Need to Know? – Possible Side effects
Using digestive enzyme supplements for a prolonged period may well justify an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner. 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 get better, you should probably stop using them.
Allergies are always a possibility, so if you know or suspect you’re allergic, then you should avoid them.
And, as always, keep supplements away from children.
Before Considering a Digestive Enzyme Supplement
All supplementation, including digestive enzymes, should be preceded with a proper diagnosis and may not be necessary by trying a few strategies first.
A common recommendation I have for clients looking to improve digestive distress is to eat slower and chew more thoroughly. This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract. It may sound a little hokey but slowing down when you eat can have a big impact on your digestion. There are enzymes in our salvia that are necessary to help break down our foods. If you are a fast eater and scarf down your meals in minutes, you are not giving your body the opportunity to do its job properly. They say you should chew each bite of food 25 times before swallowing. Try it. Then next time you eat, pace yourself and chew your food 25 times. It will likely feel like mush and that’s when you know you have chewed enough.
Avoid chewing gum. Gum can contribute to feelings of bloat and issues with digestion. This is because gum kind of tricks your body that food is on the way. Your digestive system responds to this by preparing your body to break down foods by secreting enzymes. But then no food comes. The enzymes secreted can then do 2 things; start eating away at your stomach lining causing stomach pains and cramping. And/or it is using up stores of enzymes that may or not be able to be replaced. Not all bodies can reproduce enzymes. If this is the case and our stores become depleted, our digestive system becomes compromised which means our ability to absorb nutrients is impaired and consequently so does our health.
Try eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet. Dairy & gluten are two of the most common irritants to our digestive system. Take them out for a month, give your body a break. Reintroduce them one at a time and record how your body feels. Pay attention to digestion as well as other markers such as energy, sleep, mood, skin disorders. If the symptoms reappear, you will know if those foods are not right for your body.
Eat foods rich in enzymes to support your health. Fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded with enzymes to help your body break down foods into energy and absorb the nutrients. Some examples include;
- Raw Honey
Boost your digestion with a tropical smoothie loaded with enzyme containing fruits. CLICK HERE for recipe.
Should you decide to use digestive enzymes to support your digestion, here are a few words of caution. While many supplements are safe products, they’re not all for everyone.
- 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.
- If you want expert advice on whether a specific supplement is for you, speak with a qualified health care practitioner.
To learn more about supplementation and what if any may be appropriate for you, CLICK HERE to book a free discovery call.