If ever there were a poster child for bad eating habits, it would be the modern American.
We take our plastic-wrapped foods to-go, swallowing quick eats while driving to work without so much as a third chew. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of us here in the land of the free report stomach issues and digestive woes?
We mean no shade — we’re guilty of indulging in the fast pace of contemporary cuisine here and there, too. Even Dr. Neal is a self-proclaimed M&M addict!
Thankfully, we also have more access to medical technology, health education, and dietary support than ever before, too. For those moments when our munching is less than perfect, we turn to supplements for help digesting and integrating nutrients.
Like digestive enzymes.
Scroll on to get the inside scoop on these increasingly popular GI supplements — if and how they work, when to take them, and which digestive enzymes are best.
In This Article:
- How digestive enzymes work in the body
- Who should take digestive enzymes
- What kind of digestive enzymes are best
- Choosing the right brand of digestive enzymes
1. What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Let’s break it down. Pun intended.
Digestive enzymes are specialized proteins that our bodies naturally produce to help digest, or break down, macronutrients.
Macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein) arrive in our stomachs in big chunks — really big chunks if you’re not chewing properly. At different points in the gastrointestinal tract, your organs and cells will secrete digestive enzymes to chop up these macronutrients into smaller, more absorbable pieces.
The role of digestive enzymes in the body is to, essentially, speed up the chemical reactions of assimilating food in the gut, liver, pancreas, and even the mouth via saliva. In doing so, these humble proteins make sure that the nutrients in our food actually reach our bloodstream.
So yeah, they’re pretty freaking important.
2. Do Digestive Enzyme Supplements Actually Work?
Digestive enzyme compounds don’t just exist in the canals and caverns of our human GI tracts.
They’re found in other animals and fungi too — and even in plants like mangos, papaya, and avocados. Once extracted from plant, animal, or fungal sources, these proteins can be put into convenient little capsules. And voila, you have a digestive enzyme supplement!
While corner-cutting manufacturers have given digestive enzymes a bad rap in some circles, the science still stands behind strategic supplementation of high-quality options.
Here’s a small slice of the recent research that has linked digestive enzyme supplementation to improved symptoms of GI issues:
- Enzyme supplementation can play a pivotal role in malabsorption and digestive disorders
- Digestive enzyme complexes prove helpful for common GI complaints like abdominal pain
- Enzymes and probiotics work synergistically to drive down indigestion, abdominal pain, flatulence
- Low-dose enzyme complexes offer relief from bloating, loss of apatite, diarrhea, and more
The beneficial effects of digestive enzymes don’t start and stop in the gut; they can influence how people eat and live, too. Though the field of research is still expanding, digestive enzyme supplementation is being explored as a viable option for gluten sensitivities to mitigate symptoms of exposure.
And here’s where it gets really interesting. Scientists are also seeing enzyme supplementation lead to measurable improvements in the emotional regulation of patients with Autism Spectrum Disorder — probably thanks to the illustrious gut-brain connection.
3. Should I Take Digestive Enzymes?
In spite of the overwhelming evidence that supports taking digestive enzymes, the public is undecided — or at least divided — on these supplements. And for good reason, too.
Digestive enzymes act as a band-aid for underlying gut issues. By replacing the proteins our bodies should naturally produce, enzyme supplements can keep our digestion movin’ and groovin’, but they don’t address the root causes of GI distress.
Translation: Digestive enzyme supplements are really helpful, even crucial, for some people and a huge waste of money for others.
There is no evidence that shows taking digestive enzymes will give a normal, healthy person super-human digestion or maximize nutrient uptake.Dr. Neal Smoller
So how do you figure out if you, personally, should take enzymes or not? By taking a good look in the (bathroom) mirror, of course.
If you regularly experience symptoms of malabsorption like bloating, gas, cramping, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, weight loss, or vomiting, then it’s likely your body isn’t producing enough digestive enzymes on its own.
Congrats! This means you make a great candidate for digestive enzyme supplementation.
But these recurrent symptoms point to a major issue: Malnutrition.
Digestive enzymes can help prevent the effects of malnutrition from spreading to your brain and nervous system, but remember they’re more aid than cure. These supplements won’t address the lack of naturally produced enzymes, which could be caused by a thyroid issue, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, or even pancreatic cancer.
To boil it all down:
- DO take digestive enzymes if you experience discomfort after eating
- DON’T waste money on enzymes to “optimize” healthy digestion
- DO talk to a medical professional about your digestive issues to locate root causes
4. What Kind of Digestive Enzymes Should I Take?
There’s another thing you should know before you go ham on the digestive enzyme supplements. Not all enzymatic proteins help with digesting all foods!
In fact, each specific enzyme has a highly specialized job. Lipase, for example, shines at breaking down lipids whereas bromelain does its best work on proteins. This information is crucial for successful supplementation — if you already went ham on the ham, you don’t want a lipase-only supplement.
To determine which enzymes your body needs, you first need to figure out which foods your body is struggling to digest. Start by keeping a symptom tracker on your phone or in a journal so the patterns between your munchies and maladies can become clear.
From there, you can use the nifty chart above to determine which enzymes will offer you the most relief from your GI discomfort. Check for those ingredients on the Supplement Facts Panel of your digestive enzymes and boom! You’re already 5 steps ahead of the average, willy-nilly supplement taker.
Generally speaking, though, most of us want a comprehensive blend of enzyme proteins in our supplement.
Because, if we’re eating well, then we’re getting a combination of fats, proteins, and carbs all the time. By choosing an enzyme formula that supports the digestion of all these macronutrients, we can rest assured that every bite will get broken down.
5. Which Digestive Enzymes are Best?
So now you know what ingredients to look for, but what about the brand of digestive enzyme supplements? Are they all the same? Does it matter who you buy from?
It matters, but only if you prefer to avoid wasting your time and money on cheap, ineffective supplements.
If you don’t want your hard-earned cash to line the pockets of charlatans who profit off the lack of regulations in the supplement industry, you’ll have to be a savvy shopper. In this context, that means buying based on dose, potency, and survivability.
The dose side of things is pretty easy to manage. By using your newfound knowledge of enzyme proteins, you can quickly confirm if a particular supplement has the forms you need to get an effective dose.
If you’re a snack-a-saurus eating way too many carbs, don’t fool yourself by getting a protein-heavy digestive enzyme. If you are lactose intolerant, it doesn’t make much sense to get a comprehensive enzyme that has a low dose of lactase.Dr. Neal Smoller
Avoid digestive enzymes that only list the weight of each protein. This is a Supplement Facts Panel sleight-of-hand that unethical manufacturers will use to make money off uneducated consumers.
Instead, go for supplements that list the activity level of the enzyme proteins. The activity level is used to measure the potency or strength of the enzyme — the weight is used to measure the fluff.
If you’ve found good stuff without the fluff, that’s great! But make sure the digestive enzyme supplement you choose is formulated to last.
Most prescription enzymes are wrapped in enteric coating to protect the lifespan of the proteins. Over-the-counter enzymes? Not so much.
Enzymes without enteric coating will continue to lose potency as the proteins degrade in their unprotected shell. Look for enteric-coated digestive enzyme supplements without phthalates or parabens if you want the best for your body and your wallet.
Learn More: 4 Steps to Buying the Right Supplements in 2024
Enlightened Enzyme Supplementation
You can break open that digestive enzyme supplement with confidence, now that we’ve broken down the maestros of breaking down food into bite-sized pieces.
And maybe even do a little break dancing, once you’re freed from the nerve-wracking symptoms of poor digestion!
But if you need a holistic health pro to help guide your long-term journey toward gastrointestinal wellness, give us a call. Our Counterside Consults are always free, and we probably won’t make you break up with your favorite foods.