Digestive Enzymes: What They Do and When to Supplement

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    While digestive enzymes are naturally produced in the body, some people may benefit from adding digestive enzyme supplements to their mealtime routine.

    If you’ve ever wondered how all the food you eat in a day becomes energy and fuel in your body, you can thank digestive enzymes for that. These helpful compounds are naturally produced in the body, and they also come in supplement form. Some people may find that obtaining additional digestive enzymes through supplementation may improve their digestion.

    What are digestive enzymes?

    To understand what digestive enzymes are, let’s first review how the digestive system works.

    The digestive system, also called the GI tract (gastrointestinal tract), includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus. Additional organs that provide support to the digestive system include the pancreas, liver, and gallbladder. When we eat, food progresses through the digestive system, getting broken down to then be absorbed into the bloodstream. From there, these nutrients are utilized in the body as fuel, building blocks, energy storage, and much more.

    Digestive enzymes are a group of enzymes that break down the main components of food called the macronutrients, which are protein, fat, and carbohydrates. The enzymes convert the foods we eat into their simplest forms: glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids.

    Without these enzymes, we would not be able to extract and utilize the nutrients from foods for energy and bodily functions. Having enough digestive enzymes can help support healthy nutrient levels when eating a balanced diet.

    Types of digestive enzymes

    Numerous types of digestive enzymes exist throughout the digestive system and produce specific functions. The main sites where digestive enzymes work their magic are the mouth, stomach, and small intestine.

    Digestion begins in the mouth

    The digestive process begins in the mouth with enzymes in saliva. Salivary amylase begins breaking down carbohydrates and lipase begins breaking down some fats. Enzymatic digestion happens in the mouth to a small degree compared to elsewhere in the digestive system. Most of the food breakdown in the mouth is actually caused by chewing thoroughly.

    Pancreatic enzymes

    The pancreas is the enzyme “powerhouse” of digestion. It produces the most important digestive enzymes, which are amylases, lipases, and proteases. These are collectively called pancreatic enzymes.

    Amylases break down carbohydrates and starches in foods into simple sugars, like glucose, for easy absorption.

    Proteases break down proteins into amino acids. These compounds help build muscle, transport nutrients, make up the immune system, and carry out numerous additional functions. The pancreas releases proteases into the small intestine to begin a majority of protein breakdown there with the help of stomach acid.

    Lipases break down fats, oils, and triglycerides in foods into fatty acids. The body uses these fatty acids for essential functions, including hormone synthesis, protecting our vital organs, cell growth, and more. Our bodies also need lipases for proper absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).

    Brush border enzymes

    After digestion in the stomach, food makes its way to the small intestine. In this part of our gut, food undergoes final stages of digestion by brush border enzymes. These enzymes are produced by the intestinal lining, getting the name “brush border” since they are lined with cells with finger-like surfaces that increase the surface area for absorption.

    Lactase is another digestive enzyme produced in the small intestine. This enzyme helps break down lactose, the natural sugar in milk. Interestingly, research estimates that about one third of the global population produces enough lactase to break down lactose properly and prevent malabsorption.

    Interestingly, the human body does not produce its own digestive enzymes for digestion of fiber. Additional enzymes exist in the brush border which are produced by intestinal bacteria.

    These include enzymes like alpha galactosidase which break down fiber through a process called fermentation. In one study, those using alpha galactosidase noticed less gas after consuming beans which contain highly fermented carbohydrates.

    Care/of’s Digestive Enzymes are made with clinically studied enzymes that break down dairy, gluten, fiber, carbs, fats, and protein. Taking them with meals can curb gas and indigestion, by enhancing digestion and turning food into nutrients your body is better able to absorb.

    Do digestive enzymes make you poop more?

    Digestive enzymes can support healthy bowel movements. For proper stool formation, our bodies need to sufficiently break down foods. Since digestive enzymes can help break down food thoroughly, they aid in healthy stool formation.

    Other than overall support of healthy bowel movements, digestive enzymes do not stimulate additional gut motility.

    When we do not digest food properly or don’t have enough enzymes, we may not produce normal bowel movements.

    A good example of this is in someone who is lactose intolerant. In this case, their intestines do not produce enough lactase enzyme to break down normal portions of dairy. This causes the lactose sugar in dairy products to bypass usual digestion of food and travel into the large intestine where it can be fermented by bacteria. This fermentation often produces gas and bloating. The malabsorption of lactose can cause more water to move into the intestine, which can lead to loose stools.

    Common side effects of taking digestive enzymes

    Digestive enzymes can support healthy changes in bowel movements and less gas and bloating.

    There is potential for initial digestive symptoms if high doses are taken above the recommended amount. Be sure to check the supplement label for ingredients to which you may be sensitive.

    Individuals who would benefit from taking digestive enzymes

    Sometimes food may not get fully digested as it passes through the digestive system. In these cases, digestive enzyme supplements may be helpful.

    Those who experience digestive symptoms like indigestion, bloating, or gas after eating may benefit from taking supplemental digestive enzymes.

    Since they help with the breakdown of food, digestive enzymes should always be taken along with food. Some people may do well taking digestive enzymes with their biggest meals of the day.

    Can your body become reliant on digestive enzymes?

    The good news with digestive enzymes is that they do not cause dependence. You can feel free to take these helpful supplements without the risk of your body slowing down its own natural production of digestive enzymes.

    Final takeaways

    Digestive enzymes are essential components in healthy digestion and supporting nutrient sufficiency. While naturally produced in the body, some people may experience additional needs. Depending on the types of enzymes included in the formula, digestive enzyme supplements can help break down the macronutrients carbs, fat, and protein, as well as other food components like dairy, gluten, and fiber. Digestive enzyme supplements may help reduce digestive symptoms such as indigestion, gas, and bloating, and even support healthy bowel movements.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Our Editorial Staff
    Freelance Contributor
    The Care/of Editorial Team is made up of writers, experts, and health enthusiasts, all dedicated to giving you the information you need today. Our team is here to answer your biggest wellness questions, read the studies for you, and introduce you to your new favorite product, staying up to date on the latest research, trends, and science. Each article is written by one of our experts, reviewed both for editorial standards by an editor and medical standards by one of our naturopathic doctors, and updated regularly as new information becomes available.