Digestive enzymes might be the most overlooked, underappreciated part of a good nutrition plan. Even the healthiest diet does little if you don’t have good digestive health.
Unfortunately, most people don’t think about using them unless they have issues with their gut health. As you’ll see, they’re essential for more than breaking down the food you eat. They can play a role in weight loss, muscle growth, and aging well. Not surprisingly, they’re part of my Foundational Five.
About 20% of the US population is known to have a digestive issue. That’s about 60-70 million people. The percentage continues to grow in the US and across the world.
Symptoms can be as subtle as gas and bloating to more extreme symptoms like constant diarrhea or intermittent pain.
Exercise, increased core body temperature, injury, stress, and certain diseases can compromise enzyme production. Processed foods may deplete enzyme activity and availability.
Digestive enzyme insufficiency may contribute to:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Celiac disease
- Crohn’s disease
Excessive exercise and diets high in processed foods contribute to a lack of enzymes.
What are Digestive Enzymes?
Enzymes speed up chemical reactions in the body. You use more than 5000 different enzymes every day. Most of those enzymes are metabolic enzymes, responsible for everything from your thoughts to the thickness of your blood.
A relatively small group of your 5000 enzymes convert the food you eat to nutrients that fuel and build your body.
Without digestive enzymes, you wouldn’t break down protein, fat, and carbohydrates, and your foods would pass through you undigested. Along the way, the food would destroy your intestines’ lining, cause immune reactions, and cause inflammation. Nutritionally, you’d starve, no matter how much food you ate.
Digestive enzymes fall into three different categories, based on the macronutrient they act on:
Proteases and peptidases
Proteases and peptidases convert protein to peptides and amino acids. They also act on other parts of the body to support normal immune function, inflammation levels, tissue repair, and blood viscosity.
Common proteases and peptidases include bromelain, Pancreatin, Papain, Peptidase, Protease, and Trypsin.
Carbohydrases convert carbohydrates to glucose and fructose.
Common carbohydrases include Alpha-galactosidase, Amylase, Cellulase, Diastase, Glucoamylase, Invertase, Lactase, and Phytase.
Lipases convert fat to fatty acids.
Common lipases include Lingual Lipase, Gastric Lipase, Pancrealipase.
Proteases and Peptidases (Proteolytic Enzymes)
Proteases (also known as proteolytic enzymes) act on protein in the digestive system. However, they also affect many other areas of the body.
The average healthy adult breaks down 250-300 grams of protein throughout the body every day. Your body does this to replace damaged or aged tissues with new ones. Proteolytic enzymes play an essential role in this process.
They also help maintain healthy inflammation levels, modulate pain, and support normal immune function.
Because the body can produce a limited number of proteolytic enzymes, demand can exceed supply. Following an injury or extreme physical stress, proteolytic enzymes can be directed to the tissue repair, leaving the digestive system without enough to complete digestion.
This could be why athletes often deal with digestive issues. If they don’t get extra proteolytic enzymes through food or supplements, their available enzymes take part in tissue repair, leaving them short on what they need for proper digestion.
On the other hand, in some people, enzymes are directed to digestion, leaving the rest of their body short. In this case, inflammation could get out of hand, or tissues and joints could get irritated.
When supplemented in the diet, proteolytic enzymes have been shown to reduce stiffness and exercise-related soreness.
European practitioners regularly recommend proteolytic enzymes to support overall health, maintain normal inflammatory levels, to assist with recovery from injury or surgery, to relieve symptoms of arthritis, and to complement cancer therapy.
Because undigested food often triggers food sensitivities, increasing your enzyme intake may help with food sensitivities.
For example, proline is a protein found in wheat and casein. Without the enzymes necessary to break down proline, it enters the small intestine intact and can damage the intestines’ tissues and create an autoimmune response.
Proline can also have opioid-like effects on the nervous system. Autism and proline seem to have a strong connection, which is why parents of autistic children are often encouraged to keep their kids on a strict gluten-free, and dairy-free diet.
Two specific proteases, prolyl endopeptidase (PEP), and dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV) have been shown to help break down proline and help reduce the effects of this protein on the body.
However, even enzyme supplements don’t seem to be powerful enough to completely breakdown prolines. If you’re gluten-sensitive or allergic to gluten, you’re better off staying 100% gluten-free.
Proteases and peptidases help digest protein when it reaches the stomach and in the small intestine.
For proteolytic enzymes to effectively convert dietary protein to peptides and amino acids in the stomach, the stomach must maintain a highly acidic environment. If you have low stomach acid, due to genetics, stress, or medications, you make your proteolytic enzymes inactive.
As a result, protein can pass from the stomach to the small intestine without proper digestion, causing food sensitivities and increasing inflammation.
This is why acid-reducing drugs are not intended for long-term use.
Read More: High Protein Diets: What You Need to Know.
As the name suggests, carbohydrases speed the breakdown of carbohydrates. Amylase helps convert starch to glucose. Cellulase helps break down some plant fiber.
The two most researched carbohydrases are lactase and alpha-galactosidase.
People with lactose intolerance often use lactase supplements when they consume dairy.
Lactase helps you break down lactose (milk sugar). Most adults are deficient in this enzyme, which makes for a double-whammy against dairy. Casein, one of the dairy proteins, contains proline, as I mentioned above, and then most people don’t have lactase to break down lactose.
Lactose consumption often leads to bloating, gas, or diarrhea. Two-thirds of the adult population lack the lactase enzyme.
It kind of makes you wonder if adult humans are supposed to consume dairy, doesn’t it? That’s an entire article of its own for another day.
If you do choose to consume dairy, and you do have issues with lactose, supplementing with lactase can help you avoid some of the digestive problems.
Also, if you can get your hands on raw, unpasteurized dairy, it’ll have the enzymes in it to help you digest it. The processing of conventional milk destroys lactase.
Alpha-galactosidase assists with the breakdown of legumes, cruciferous vegetables, and some grains. If you’re low on this enzyme, you’ll experience gas following meals with these foods.
Carbohydrases act on carbohydrates in the mouth, the upper part of the stomach, and the small intestine.
Lipases break down fat. Those with late-stage pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis often experience low levels of lipase enzymes. Supplemental lipase is often recommended in those with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
Of the three enzyme types, decreased lipase production has the potential to be the most problematic. If you do not properly digest fat, it will completely pass through you, a condition known as “steatorrhea.”
Pancreatitis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Celiac disease, Cystic fibrosis, Zollinger-Elilison syndrome, Giardiasis, and Graves disease or hyperthyroidism can all lead to steatorrhea.
Symptoms of steatorrhea include diarrhea, foul-smelling stool, weight loss, jaundice, distended stomach, abdominal pain, and/or gas and rumbling of the stomach.
Enzyme replacement often resolves or at least reduces these issues.
How to Increase Digestive Enzyme Levels
Raw foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, raw milk and butter, and even raw meat, contain their own enzymes. Nature provides the food and gives us many of the enzymes we need to digest the food once we eat it.
However, most modern diet foods are cooked and even sterilized, destroying the enzymes the foods once had.
Even if a raw steak is healthier for me, I have no interest in eating it raw. I’ll eat sushi, but I draw the line at raw beef, chicken, or turkey.
You probably shouldn’t eat all your vegetables raw, as that can be problematic. Just eat a mix of raw and cooked vegetables (and if you’re not eating any vegetables, you’re dropping the ball on your health).
When eating meat, less cooking is better. A well-done steak will be much more difficult to digest than a steak cooked medium-raw.
Even if you do everything right, you also must face an aging body. Age causes a reduction in enzyme production.
In fact, while researching this topic, I was surprised by how often practitioners and researchers mentioned maintaining optimal enzyme levels can slow the aging process. It does make sense when you understand how important enzymes are to getting the nutrients out of the foods we eat.
Increasing your nutrient intake would likely support better health.
So, eat more raw food, don’t overcook your food, and be smart about the physical stress you put your body through.
In my opinion, most people would benefit from a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme supplement. “Broad-spectrum” means it includes a mix of proteases and peptidases, carbohydrases, and lipases.
If you have trouble with a specific protein or carbohydrate, like lactose, you can certainly take lactase by itself. However, in our modern-day world, you’ll probably do better to take a high-quality digestive enzyme supplement that includes various enzymes.
The only contraindication I’ve seen with enzymes relates to blood thinners. Since proteolytic enzymes can thin the blood (which is normally a good thing), they may amplify the effects of a prescription blood thinner. If you use a blood thinner, check in with your doctor. He or she might need to modify your prescription if you notice that the enzymes have a similar effect on your blood.