You may have come across digestive enzyme supplements for helping you with your digestive struggles. It is often recommended when the digestive order is out of balance, when there is leaky gut and food sensitivity issues.
But be aware, not everyone should be taking digestive enzyme supplements; and not all of them are created equal.
As a practitioner, I find that many people with digestive issues want to jump straight into using a supplement. After all, we are hoping for the quick fix to our troubles.
Many times I would rather try other strategies first, which seem simple and for many people not “powerful” enough to be taken seriously.
And not to mention, that some supplements can be harmful if used inappropriately.
So, let’s dive into a few of the 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. Our body makes the enzymes it needs for all these tasks by itself if everything is working well. And ideally we don’t need to supplement enzymes.
Let’s look at digestive enzymes more closely. There are specifically those enzymes we use for digestion. They’re enzymes that our digestive system naturally makes and secretes when we eat.
Now, all of the “macronutrients” we eat (carbs, protein & fat) need to be broken down into their individual (smaller) parts so that we can properly absorb and digest them. Ideally only the smallest molecules of our food pass into our bloodstream to nourish our cells. If the molecules remain too big -meaning they were not broken down correctly- we don’t absorb them properly.
As a result we can experience fatigue, malnutrition, digestive distress or a host of other symptoms.
It is these individual (smaller) parts that our body amazingly rearranges and uses to create other larger molecules that our body needs.
How do we identify digestive enzymes when we are looking for a supplement? They all end with “ase”.
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?
I would 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).
As mentioned above the reason behind 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. And this is definitely troublesome for certain people.
What do I need to know if I have a medical condition?
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:
- Digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates into sugars are not recommended for diabetics, or pregnant/breastfeeding women.
- 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 have the ability to “thin” the blood and prevent normal clotting.
What do I need to know about possible side effects of digestive enzymes?
Using digestive enzyme supplements for a prolonged period of time 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 possiblity, so if you know or suspect you’re allergic, then you should avoid them.
And, as always, keep supplements away from children.
Do this first before considering a digestive enzyme supplement
Don’t just jump to supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis or trying a few strategies first.
My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax more, eat slower, at the table without electronic distraction and chew more thoroughly. Count your chews, don’t swallow before you counted at least 15 of them. This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract. The saliva is already your first point of carbohydrate breakdown. We want it to get a good chance to do it’s job properly.
The second step would be to try eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet (dairy & gluten, for example) and see if that helps. Often digestive symptoms improve by merely removing these foods and other reactive foods from your diet.
While many supplements are safe products, they’re not all for everyone.
I recommend that you:
- 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.
If you are wondering if your supplements are right for you, we offer a supplement check. Get in touch with me to book your appointment.
Natural Medicines Database, Bromelain, Papain, Retrieved January 21, 2017 from https://naturalmedicines.therapeuticresearch.com