Digestive Enzyme Health & Food Supplements: Are They Right For You?

Digestion is a funny thing. When it’s going well, we barely notice it. But when something is wrong, we become acutely aware of our internal goings-on.

The best recipe for good digestion is to choose nourishing foods, chew them thoroughly and eat when relaxed. But sometimes you might need extra help—and this is where digestive supplements come in.

In this article, we’ll look at digestive health supplements in general, and digestive enzyme supplements more specifically. You’ll learn how to work out if digestive enzymes are right for you, how to choose a good formulation, and the most effective way to take them.

Contents

What are digestive health supplements?
What do digestive enzyme supplements do?
What are digestive enzyme supplements?
Why take digestive enzyme supplements?
What are the best digestive enzyme supplements?
Where can I buy digestive health supplements online?
When to take digestive health supplements
Are digestive enzymes safe?
Conclusion

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What are digestive health supplements?

Digestive health supplements come in many forms, but they’re all designed to support (and even enhance) your digestion. Popular examples include:

Betaine HCl This increases stomach acid, which is essential for breaking down your food.1 Another option is to take old-fashioned digestive bitters.

Pancreatic enzymes These are designed to complement the digestive enzymes released by the pancreas, but also by other areas of the gut. We’ll go into more detail on these in this article.

Bile or bile-stimulating foods You need bile in order to digest fats effectively. You can take bile acids to top up your bile levels, or you can take spices such as ginger and turmeric to stimulate your own bile production.

Probiotics These are good bacteria. We used to think these ‘repopulated’ the large intestine, but we now know they work in more subtle ways, such as training your immune system.2

Prebiotics These feed your existing good bacteria, so they grow and crowd out any bad bacteria.

Glutamine This amino acid supports a strong gut lining. Zinc carnosine can be helpful here too 3, 4.

These can be potent, but it’s important to realise that they shouldn’t be viewed as ‘magic bullets’.

The way to understand this is to imagine a house. Your sleep, relaxation and movement are the foundations. Your diet is the bricks and mortar. Your supplements are the furnishings. You wouldn’t buy curtains before you built your house—so you shouldn’t take supplements without addressing your diet and lifestyle first.

What do digestive enzyme supplements do?

Digestive enzyme supplements help you digest your food effectively so you can absorb more nutrients from your meals.

Enzymes are special proteins. We have lots of then and they perform different tasks all over the body (such as building muscle), but in the digestive system, they’re mainly involved in breaking down food.

You can picture digestive enzymes as scissors: they snip food into its smallest possible units. These small units can then be absorbed into the bloodstream and delivered to the cells that need them most.

Your body produces three main types of digestive enzymes:

· Amylase: breaks down carbohydrates and starches into simple sugars.

· Lipase: breaks down fats and oils into glycerol and fatty acids.

· Protease: breaks down proteins into amino acids.

When you take digestive enzyme supplements with food, they help you to digest what you’re eating.5 As you’ll learn later on in this article, digestive enzymes supplements can also be taken in between meals to reduce inflammation.

What are digestive enzyme supplements?

Digestive enzyme supplements are animal or plant-derived enzymes that complement your body’s natural supply.

You produce digestive enzymes at several points along your gastrointestinal tract. Have you ever eaten white rice and noticed that the more you chew it, the sweeter it becomes? That’s because the digestive enzyme amylase is in your saliva, and it starts to turn the starch in rice into simple sugars.

Let’s look in more detail at where enzymes naturally occur in the body:

· Your salivary glands produce amylase.

· Your stomach produces protease.

· Your pancreas produces amylase, lipase and protease.

· Your small intestine produces amylase, lipase and protease.

If the health or function of one of those organs is compromised, they may not produce enough enzymes, or the enzymes might not work properly. In either situation, digestive enzyme supplements can help you digest your food while you work on improving your gut health.

Digestive enzyme supplements are dried and encapsulated versions of amylase, lipase and protease. They can be from either animal sources or vegetarian sources.

Animal sources are typically pigs and cows. On a label, these are called ‘porcine’ or ‘bovine’ enzymes.6

Vegetarian sources include plants, microbes and some fungi. Bromelain from pineapple and papain from papaya are two popular proteases derived from fruits.7

Why take digestive enzyme supplements?

Sometimes we don’t produce enough enzymes, or they don’t function as they should. In these cases, taking digestive enzyme supplements can be helpful.

So, what affects your natural enzyme function?

An elevated body temperature. This changes the structure of enzymes, so they can’t function effectively. Imagine you bent those scissors—they wouldn’t be able to cut properly.

Low stomach acid. Enzymes work best at a certain pH. If that pH isn’t optimal because you don’t have enough stomach acid, enzymes can struggle to work.

Antibiotics. Taking antibiotics can stop some enzymes from working altogether.

Pancreatitis. This is inflammation of the pancreas. An inflamed pancreas cannot produce enzymes as it should, meaning your digestion suffers. True pancreatitis is rare, but pancreatic insufficiency is more common.

Coeliac disease. This autoimmune condition causes damage to the structure of the small intestine lining, which leads to lower levels of enzymes.

But how do you know if any of the above might apply to you? Research suggests that up to 90% of people with Coeliac disease don’t even know they have it.8

Aside from testing, your symptoms can give clues that you might benefit from digestive enzyme supplementation. These include:

  • Having diarrhoea directly after eating
  • Feeling bloated directly after eating
  • Experiencing abdominal pain directly after eating

What you might notice is that these are symptoms typically associated with IBS. And interestingly, studies suggest that IBS sufferers are prime candidates for digestive enzyme supplementation, especially if their symptoms are worse after a high-fat meal.9

If you’d like to be certain digestive enzyme supplements are worth trying, you can also measure the level of pancreatic elastase in your stool. This is a marker of pancreatic function and, if it’s less than 100mcg/g, it clearly indicates low enzyme production.10 A level between 200mcg/g and 400mcg/g may respond to digestive enzyme supplements too. We include this marker in our Gut Health Test.

Just to be clear: only people with a diagnosed pancreatic condition are medically prescribed enzyme supplements. They are not recommended to other people as standard, even though—as in the IBS study above—research is beginning to show that they can be helpful for a range of conditions.11

 

Supplements for gut health infographic

 

What are the best digestive enzyme supplements?

There are thousands of digestive enzymes on the market, but they’re not all created equal. You need to know what you’re looking for. Here are a few tips:

1) Look for a supplement that contains enzymes to digest all three macronutrients: lipase, amylase, protease. Pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin—which are often listed on labels—are all forms of proteases.

2) The lipase value is the best indication of strength. You want a supplement that will provide between 8,000 and 24,00 USP of lipase per capsule.

3) If the label doesn’t include individual values for each enzyme type, make sure it contains at least 400mg total enzymes per capsule.

Depending on your needs, you may also wish to look for formulations that contain other digestive aids such as betaine HCl, bitters, bile or bile-stimulating herbs. Many companies now combine these with digestive enzymes.

But remember: supplements should only ever be regarded as extra support. For great digestion, you first need to focus on choosing nourishing foods and eating in a relaxed state.

For further tips on how to choose the best supplements, head over to everything you need to know about supplements.

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Where can I buy digestive health supplements online?

Just as there a lot of supplement brands, there are also lots of online outlets selling them. Simply googling ‘digestive enzyme supplements’ brings up more than 11 million results.

But it pays to be an informed consumer. Some popular formulations contain one or two enzymes to do a specific job (e.g. lactase for better digestion of dairy). While these can be helpful, they can’t match the support offered by a more comprehensive enzyme formulation.

You also want to check whether they’re from animal or vegetarian sources. Dietary preferences aside, some research suggests that plant-derived enzymes work at a broader pH, which might be suitable if you know you suffer from low stomach acid. Animal-derived enzymes remain the standard of care for people with pancreatic conditions.12

Finally, use the tips in the previous section to assess the strength of the formulation. There’s no point in taking a supplement if it’s too weak to have any real effect. You can find a range of professional-grade supplements in the Healthpath shop.

When to take digestive health supplements

There are two ways to take digestive enzyme supplements:

1) With food.

2) Without food.

Let’s take a look at both:

1) With food.
You can take 1–3 capsules with each meal, depending on its size. The purpose of doing this is to help you break down your food effectively.

While some people do notice a difference in their digestion with the first meal, this isn’t always the case. It can take up to three months for digestive enzyme supplements to reach their optimal effect.

2) Without food.
It may seem strange to take digestive enzymes when you’re not eating but, in the absence of food, proteases can break down other things—such as inflammatory molecules.

One study found that digestive enzymes can reduce the pain associated with osteoarthritis, and another found that bromelain (that protein-digesting enzyme found in pineapple) can reduce oedema and improve healing.13,14

Other digestive health supplements—including betaine HCl, probiotics, prebiotics and targeted nutrients—should be taken at different times to maximise their effect. It’s best to consult a Registered Nutritional Therapist or Functional Medicine Practitioner to see if enzymes and other supplements are right for you.

Are digestive enzymes safe?

Digestive enzymes are considered safe but, as with any supplement, they have to be used appropriately. Taking too many enzymes can cause digestive discomfort such as nausea and cramping. Too much bromelain, in particular, can cause diarrhoea.15

Digestive discomfort aside, there are some people who need to be cautious about taking digestive enzyme supplements:

People taking blood-thinning medication. Bromelain has anti-platelet activity, which means that it could increase the risk of bleeding in people taking blood-thinning medication.16

Children with cystic fibrosis. There’s a rare yet significant risk of children with cystic fibrosis developing a colon disorder when taking digestive enzymes.17

If you’re taking any medications, you should consult your GP before starting any supplements.

Even if you’re not on medication, you should always address the foundations before taking digestive enzyme supplements. Eat a diet based on whole foods, chew thoroughly, move regularly and relax. These will all help your digestion.

You can also up your intake of foods that are naturally rich in enzymes. Opt for raw pineapple, papaya and kiwi, plus kefir, kombucha and kimchi. These aren’t as concentrated as supplements, but they are safe, readily available and good for your digestion as a whole.

Conclusion

You produce enzymes at several points in your digestive tract, which help you break down your food. Sometimes people don’t make enough enzymes, or they don’t work as effectively as they should, which means they can benefit from digestive enzyme supplements.

Digestive enzyme supplements can help to alleviate digestive symptoms associated with IBS, and they have also been found to reduce inflammation when taken between meals.

But it’s important to use them sensibly. Digestive enzyme supplements may help you feel better, but they shouldn’t be regarded as a long-term solution. You also need to investigate what may be causing insufficient production of enzymes, or why your gastrointestinal system isn’t providing the right environment for enzymes to work properly.

This will often involve tweaking your diet and optimising your lifestyle. You can work with a Registered Nutritional Therapist or Functional Medicine Practitioner to create the right plan for you.

Author
Fiona Lawson BA (Hons) DipCNM mBANT is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and health writer. She is a member of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) and the Institute for Functional Medicine (IFM). As Content Director of Healthpath, Fiona is on a mission to help people take charge of their own health. Read more about Fiona on her practitioner page.

 

References

1 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23980906
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5995450/
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27749689
4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1856764/
5 http://www.altmedrev.com/archive/publications/13/4/307.pdf
6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/
7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/
8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2660494/
9 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10489912
10 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21629239
11 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/
12 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/
13 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15278753
14 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3287010
15 https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(14)00520-5/abstract
16 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16308185
17 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9113931

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