science

Digestive Enzymes: What Are They, and Do You Need Them?

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS

5 min read

Digestive enzymes help break down the food we eat. Find out more about the role enzymes play in digestion and learn how digestive enzyme supplements may help!

What are digestive enzymes?

Digestive Enzymes help us break down the foods we eat. They are made by the body as part of the digestion process so protein, fat, and carbohydrates can be made small enough to pass through the gut wall. Once in the body, these macronutrients can then be used for fuel.

How do digestive enzymes work in the body?

Digestion of food starts in the mouth. The saliva in the mouth contains an enzyme called salivary amylase that breaks down carbohydrates.

When food reaches the stomach, protein is broken down by the pepsin enzyme. Food then travels to the small intestine to be further broken down and absorbed. Enzymes from the pancreas flow into the small intestine to break down protein, fats, and carbohydrates.

Types of digestive enzymes

Key digestive enzymes and their functions:

  • Amylase - Breaks down complex carbohydrates
  • Lipase - Breaks down fats
  • Protease - Breaks down proteins
  • Lactase - Breaks down lactose
  • Alpha-galactosidase - Breaks down complex carbohydrates

Fun fact: if it ends in “-ase”, it’s an enzyme!

Digestive enzymes vs Probiotics

Our colon (large intestine) is host to trillions of microbes that make up the “intestinal microbiome.” We can also eat certain foods, drinks, and supplements that contain beneficial organisms called “probiotics.” These are mostly bacteria, but can also be certain types of yeast.

Probiotic-rich foods include kimchi, miso, and yogurt. Fermented drinks like kombucha are also a source of probiotics in the diet.

Probiotics from foods may have some researched health benefits, but there is always a question of whether the microbes actually make it to the colon. This is where probiotic supplements can be beneficial. They are created as pills or powders to deliver a high dose of probiotics to the body.

Research suggests that probiotic supplements may support the immune system and promote digestive health.

Digestive enzymes and probiotics can both be found in foods and supplements and they can both help support digestion, but they are not the same.

Digestive enzymes help break down protein, fats, and carbohydrates so they can be absorbed by the body. Probiotics are beneficial microbes that can support digestive and immune health..

What is digestive enzyme insufficiency?

There are many reasons why someone may not produce enough digestive enzymes.

One possibility is that they have an issue with their pancreas or have had part (or all) of their pancreas removed. Remember that the pancreas makes enzymes that break down protein, fats, and carbohydrates. If little to no pancreatic juice is being made, the body will have a much harder time trying to break down food for absorption.

Problems with the stomach or mouth could also impact the amount of digestive enzymes made.

Additionally, there are certain conditions that can cause someone to not make enough of certain enzymes. For example, in lactose intolerance, the person does not make enough of the lactase enzyme, which is needed to break down sugar found in dairy products.

Symptoms of digestive enzyme insufficiency

Digestive enzyme insufficiency can cause symptoms such as:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Loose bowel movements
  • Oily bowel movements
  • Cramping

These symptoms would be especially noticeable soon after meals.

Natural sources of digestive enzymes

Enzymes can be found naturally in certain foods. Pineapples contain an enzyme called bromelain, and papayas contain an enzyme called papain. Both enzymes can help break down protein.

Who needs digestive enzymes?

You may benefit from digestive enzymes if you feel extremely full after eating, indigestion, or experience occasional bloating or gas.

A few specific signs would be if you have symptoms after eating a high-fat meal, beans, or dairy products.

Digestive enzymes supplementation

If your body needs an enzyme boost, digestive enzymes are available as dietary supplements. Certain enzymes can be helpful for certain foods.

Fat

Some people find that they get really full (like Thanksgiving full!) after eating a high-fat meal. Lipase is important for breaking down fat, but the amount of lipase a person makes may not be enough to digest a higher amount of fat. Researchers found that giving people a lipase enzyme supplement with a high-fat meal reduced feelings of fullness after a meal.

Beans

“Beans, beans, they're good for your heart. The more you eat, the more you…” well, you know the rest! Beans get a bad reputation for causing some unpleasant side effects. This is because they contain certain types of starches that get fermented by the microbes in the gut. However, in one study, when beans were eaten with the enzyme alpha-galactosidase, people reported less gas.

Dairy

We touched on lactose intolerance earlier. This is where the body doesn’t make enough of the lactase enzyme. This can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea after eating dairy products. Researchers found that adding enzymes to dairy products helped improve tolerance.

Our Digestive Enzymes blend contains all three of these enzymes, plus extra enzymes to help support healthy digestion!

Potential side effects and health risks

You may notice (positive) changes in your bowel movements and less bloating when you start digestive enzyme supplements.

Digestive enzyme supplements are likely generally safe for most people. However, you should always check with your healthcare professional before starting any new supplements and make sure they know all the medications you are currently taking. They can help you decide if digestive enzymes are right for you.

When to seek medical help

While digestive enzymes may help support digestion, it’s important to seek help if you are having chronic digestive issues. Symptoms such as chronic or severe abdominal pain, constipation, or diarrhea should be evaluated by a healthcare professional. Blood in your stool needs to be checked out as soon as possible.

Final takeaways

Digestive enzymes are naturally made by the body to help break down the food we eat. We can also take digestive enzymes in the form of certain types of supplements in order to support digestion. These can be particularly helpful for digesting a high-fat meal or for reducing side effects from eating beans. Digestive enzymes may also help support the digestion of dairy products.

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