Digestive enzymes can be helpful for just about everyone. They help break down your food as it moves through your digestive tract, which can aid in nutrient assimilation, and in some cases, help prevent the digestive discomfort that comes with eating certain, hard-to-digest foods (1).
The best digestive enzymes are comprehensive blends that include at least one type of enzyme from each food group (fat, carbohydrates, protein, and sugar). This way, you have all your nutritional bases covered. The majority of the research on digestive enzymes uses animal-derived varieties, but there's a growing body of research that focuses on plant- or microbe-derived enzymes, and they're showing a lot of promise when it comes to how these enzymes can help with digestive health (1).
What Are Digestive Enzymes?Enzymes are the catalysts to a huge number of functions in the human body. Digestive enzymes work in a similar way, catalyzing the breakdown of larger particles into smaller pieces. Sometimes the enzymes sound like the foods they break down:
- Lipases break down fat into lipids.
- Proteases break down proteins into amino acids.
- Cellulases break down cellulose, a type of fibrous carbohydrate.
- Lactase breaks down lactose, the sugar found in dairy products.
Where Are Digestive Enzymes Located?
Digestive enzymes live along various sections of your digestive system. Some, like amylase, live in the saliva in your mouth. You may have done an experiment with a saltine cracker in school as a kid: You chew up a saltine cracker for one minute, and over the course of that minute, the salty, savory cracker becomes a mushy, sweet blob. That's actually because of the action of both amylase and another enzyme called ptyalin (2). Both of these break down carbohydrates into their smallest sugar molecules.
There's also an enzyme in your mouth called bromelain. Bromelain helps break down the proteins in meat. It's even included in some commercially sold meat tenderizers to help soften tough cuts. Bromelain is found in nature in pineapple fruit. So eating pineapple and meat side by side may help you digest your meat more optimally.
Other digestive enzymes live in your stomach or small intestine, or are secreted from your pancreas as you digest your food. In the stomach in particular, these enzymes assist and are assisted by your stomach acid. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) is present in the stomach and is also meant to help break down foods. If you're having digestive issues, it might not be easy to pinpoint exactly where in the digestive tract things are going wrong.
This is true even if you're experiencing symptoms in a particular region, like acid reflux or heartburn in the upper digestive tract, or gas and bloating in the lower digestive tract. The best digestive enzyme supplements cover all your bases by including enzymes across the food groups and across bodily regions.
Why Take Digestive Enzymes?
As digestive enzymes are a natural feature along your digestive tract, you might be asking yourself why you'd need to take them as a supplement. Certain digestive troubles or broader health issues may result when the food you eat isn't digested or absorbed properly. Adding a little bit of digestive support can assist absorption and digestion, or might be helpful if you have certain health conditions like Celiac disease or lactose intolerance. In these cases, enzymes can help break things down (like gluten and lactose) that your body isn’t equipped to handle, likely because you don’t produce the required enzymes.
You might notice from time to time that if you eat a meal too quickly, you experience gas or bloating. That's because the enzymes in your saliva didn't have a chance to do their work before you swallowed your food. The sub-optimally digested food then hits your stomach and HCl into overdrive to work overtime to try break down this food. This process may create heartburn in the upper digestive region, or it may cause bloating in the intestines because the digestive enzymes weren’t stimulated in time.
Now imagine if your HCl levels were compromised or if you were having trouble making a particular enzyme (like lactase, in the case of those who are lactose intolerant). This is where supplements may come in handy.
Some foods are naturally harder to digest than others. Beans, for example, are notorious for the digestive challenges they produce. Alpha-galactosidase is a digestive enzyme that breaks down the starches in beans and legumes that cause problems for some people (3).
Digestive Enzymes not only help break down foods for easy digestion, they also do it for easy absorption. If your body is having a hard time breaking down food to the point that it's causing you digestive distress, it's likely that you are not optimally absorbing the nutrients in the food. Chronically poor nutrient absorption can lead to nutrient deficiencies that can negatively impact your health (4). If you have a chronic disease that impacts your ability to absorb nutrients (like Crohn's disease) or involves inflammation in your system that could do damage to your intestinal lining (like colitis or irritable bowel syndrome), it might be helpful to supplement with digestive enzymes to give your digestive system a push in the right direction (1).
The Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements
Since we've already gone over the broader categories of digestive enzymes as they relate to various food groups, let's talk about the best enzyme formulas.
When you're shopping for digestive enzymes, it's really important to read your labels to understand what's in the bottle. You want to make sure the capsules don't contain unnecessary fillers or extra unhealthy ingredients like starches, soy lecithin, or other irrelevant ingredients. Good brands have clear labels on their products and contain a variety of enzymes from each food category.
Some enzymes come from plant sources like papain, which comes from papaya and helps digest protein, and the aforementioned bromelain, which comes from pineapple. These are both helpful ingredients to look for in a digestive enzyme supplement. Lactase and peptidase are other enzymes that help with digesting dairy by breaking down lactose and casein, respectively. Peptidase also helps digest gluten and may help those with gluten sensitivity if they eat something that isn't gluten-free (5).
Importantly, since the modern diet is high in sugar, it is recommended to include a digestive enzyme that helps break down sugar, such as amylase or glucoamylase.
For lipid digestion, opt to include lipase.
Support Your Healthy Digestion
Digestive enzymes are an excellent way to support your gut health, but they aren't the only answer. Keeping your stress levels low to avoid digestive problems and maintain low stomach acid, chewing your food well to avoid overtaxing your digestive system, and eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods that support digestive function help support a healthy digestive system.
Raw food contains natural digestive enzymes, as do fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut. By eating these healthy foods and supplementing with a good-quality enzyme, you are doing your best to help support healthy digestion.