Many digestive enzymes are crucial to maintaining a healthy digestive process. Yet, most people don't know anything about digestive enzymes or the disorders related to them beyond lactose intolerance.
To get an idea of how important digestive enzymes are, consider how uncomfortable it is when you get heartburn or diarrhea. Now imagine living with these symptoms constantly!
Heartburn and diarrhea are only a few complications of digestive enzyme deficiency. So what are digestive enzymes? Is there only one type of them? And what are their sources?
What Exactly Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are substances that aid digestion and help your organs absorb nutrients from your food. They're typically found in digestive organs and components, such as the mouth’s saliva, the pancreas, the small intestine, and the digestive tract.
Digestive enzymes break food down into smaller nutrients, making them more easily absorbed during digestion. Think of how we chew food to make it easily swallowable and how difficult it would be to swallow a whole piece of food. Digestive enzymes work like that; they're the teeth, and nutrients are the food.
Major Types of Digestive Enzymes
There are many digestive-enzyme types that differ based on the nutrients they target and the organs that secrete them, such as the salivary glands, the pancreas, or the small intestine. Nevertheless, these are some of the most important digestive enzymes produced in the human body:
Lipase is the digestive enzyme for fat. This pancreatic enzyme works with the bile stomach acid in your liver to break down fats into fatty acids.
Although generally considered pancreatic enzymes, some other organs, such as the stomach and salivary glands, produce small amounts of lipase enzymes. But the pancreas produces much larger quantities in comparison.
Lipase is also crucial for breaking down fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, and without it, they won’t be absorbed well.
Amylase is the digestive enzyme for carbohydrates. It’s produced by the pancreas and the salivary glands to break down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars that can be easily absorbed during digestion.
The digestion process begins in the mouth when the amylase in the saliva is mixed with food as you chew. And you can easily observe this yourself by chewing a piece of bread; you’ll feel it become sweeter the more it stays in your mouth.
Amylase levels in the blood are also used as pointers for problems in the digestive tract and pancreas.
Protease is the digestive enzyme for protein; it digests proteins from food into small peptides or basic amino acids. In turn, individual amino acids play a role in vital body functions like cell division, blood clotting, and immune system health.
Proteolytic enzymes are produced in the stomach and pancreas. These enzymes have several names, such as proteolytic enzymes, proteinases, pepsin, and peptidases. However, the latter two are types of proteases rather than synonyms.
Proteolytic enzymes also help keep germs out of your digestive system. So having a protease deficiency will allow some germs to pass to your small intestine and spread toxins there.
Lactase enzymes are produced by enterocytes cells in the digestive tract, and they help digest lactose sugars found in milk and other dairy products.
Lactose sugars are probably the most known due to the infamous condition of lactose intolerance, a common digestive enzyme disorder in many parts of the world.
People who are lactose intolerant can’t digest lactose well, so the unabsorbed lactose goes to the gut where bacteria eat it, causing an upset stomach and bloating due to the fermentation process of bacteria.
Sucrase enzymes are produced and stored in the small intestine, where they take sucrose sugars (such as those found in table sugar) and break them down into their building blocks, the simple sugars glucose and fructose.
If your body is unable to break down sucrose, you likely have sucrose intolerance, which is similar to lactose intolerance and results in an upset stomach and diarrhea. And some health conditions, like celiac disease, play a factor in sucrose intolerance as well.
The small intestine releases maltase enzymes to break down malt sugar into two simple glucose molecules, which are easier to digest in the tract and absorb in the bloodstream.
Maltose sugars are commonly found in bread, grains, breakfast cereals, and fruits. Starch is also partially transformed to maltose by amylase enzymes. Then maltase enzymes continue breaking down the maltose as well.
Why Are Digestive Enzymes Good for You?
As you can probably guess from the name alone, digestive enzymes are vital for healthy digestion, which correlates to your overall health.
Having poor digestive health can have several implications. And if you already suffer from any of them, you'll know how uncomfortable it is to live with health conditions like abdominal pain, intestinal inflammation, or irregular bowel movements.
But with appropriate levels of naturally-occurring digestive enzymes, you can avoid many of the gastrointestinal diseases that digestive enzyme insufficiency causes, which snowballs into bigger benefits, as we’re about to discuss.
- Essential for Nutrient Absorption
Digestive enzymes work to break down complex nutrient structures into simpler building blocks. So they’re crucial for proper food digestion and nutrient absorption.
By boosting nutrient absorption, your organs can concentrate their efforts on other metabolic processes instead of digestion, therefore increasing energy levels and supporting other bodily functions.
Also, high lactase activity and good levels of pancreatic enzymes, like amylase, can break down starch and lactose into productive simple sugars, fueling your body.
- Anti-inflammatory Benefits
Bromelain, papain, pancreatin, and other proteolytic enzymes help digest proteins in the body, making them more abundantly available in a ready-to-use form, which the body can use to regulate protein-reliant processes like the inflammatory response.
The inflammatory response is vital for your health. For example, you'll experience chronic pain and fatigue when inflammation is high, and those can spiral into headaches, migraines, joint pain, and more.
When the inflammatory response reduces inflammation, it’ll also alleviate these symptoms. Reduced inflammation also has great anti-aging benefits, especially for maintaining youthful skin.
- Supporting Pancreas and Gallbladder Health
Digestion is heavily reliant on the pancreas, gallbladder, and liver. So when your body isn't able to digest food properly, you might develop a digestive disorder, which will have implications on these organs, especially the former two.
For example, pancreatic cancer and chronic pancreatitis are some of the more common pancreas diseases that a digestive disorder can cause.
And when pancreatic juices are low, it affects the bile duct, which relies on these juices for digestion. This could result in several diseases, including cystic fibrosis.
But with the right diet and digestive enzyme supplements, you’ll keep your digestive system safe and hopefully avoid these diseases.
- Relieving Digestive Discomfort
People typically experience digestive discomfort when they eat something containing complex nutrient molecules because their bodies are unable to break them down. These complex nutrients then end up "clogging" the digestive system and causing various unpleasant symptoms.
For example, people with sucrose or lactose intolerance experience bloating, gas, diarrhea, or an upset stomach if they consume sucrose or lactose. Similarly, people with Coeliac Disease experience the same symptoms when they eat anything containing gluten.
- Healing the Digestive Tract
There are tiny hair-like cells lining up your small intestine to absorb simple nutrient molecules like glucose. But if what reaches these cells is a complex nutrient that your body couldn’t break down, it can damage your villi, causing leaky gut syndrome and aggravating your intestinal walls.
This can also cause your immune system to identify the complex nutrient as a trespasser and start fighting it, therefore “shifting” the focus of your immune system away from other parts of that body that need it.
- Relieving Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS is a condition where you intermittently experience symptoms like bloating, cramps, constipation, and diarrhea for varying periods of time, be it a couple of days or several months. Unfortunately, up to 20% of Americans have reported experiencing IBS symptoms.
And although IBS won’t increase the risk of pancreatic cancer or any other life-threatening disease, it can still damage your digestive system. Not to mention, it’s quite uncomfortable to deal with.
While there’s no cure for IBS, taking a good digestive enzyme supplement can significantly relieve these symptoms. The enzyme supplement will maintain healthy levels of digestive juices, therefore aiding your digestive system in breaking down food.
- Alleviating Other Digestive Disorders
A shortage/imbalance in digestive enzymes can cause many disorders that disrupt your digestive system and cause discomfort. If you suffer from a digestive disorder, it's essential to know what you lack and what your body needs to acquire.
For example, if your body isn’t properly digesting starch, you’ll need to implement more maltase-rich foods or supplements in your diet. However, keep in mind that it's best to consult a doctor and take the necessary tests before getting a digestive enzyme supplement.
- Mental Health Benefits
The brain relies on neurotransmitters, which are the messengers that enable it to communicate with the body. And these neurotransmitters need protein to stay healthy.
So if you're not getting an adequate amount of protein, or your body refuses to break it down, it could negatively impact your neurotransmitters, which has bad effects on your mental health.
Furthermore, mental health is significantly affected by any inflammation in the nervous system. And as digestive enzymes can reduce inflammation, they’ll help improve your mental health in a roundabout way.
Digestive Enzyme Deficiency
Digestive enzyme insufficiency/deficiency has many health implications and can cause various digestive problems. And there are many factors and disorders that can cause digestive-enzyme insufficiency itself.
Some of these disorders happen during birth, while others occur in infancy or old age, and they're mainly out of people’s control. However, sometimes this deficiency is lifestyle-related.
Either way, the results are the same and require treatment. But first, it's essential to understand what it means not to get enough digestive enzymes.
Common Digestive Enzyme Deficiencies and Disorders
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI)
If you have EPI, your pancreas isn’t producing the enzymes you need to break down food, meaning the food could pass through your intestines undigested, and you won't get much nutritional value out of it.
Chronic pancreatitis is the leading cause of EPI, and most pancreatitis cases eventually develop this insufficiency. However, it can also result from celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, or having had surgery near the pancreas or tract.
Congenital Sucrase-Isomaltase Deficiency (CSID)
As the name suggests, CSID is when your body isn't producing enough sucrase or isomaltase, which are essential enzymes for digesting complex sucrose (table sugar) and maltose (malt sugar) molecules. CSID is primarily genetic. But fortunately, it's a relatively rare disease.
Dyspepsia refers to the feeling of fullness and early satiety after a meal, which sounds normal. But with external factors like peptic ulcers, it can turn to functional dyspepsia, which will feel like you’re full for no reason.
Foods with high-fat content are what mostly cause or worsen functional dyspepsia, so a good solution is taking proper digestive enzyme supplements, specifically ones that are lipase-rich.
Congenital Lactase Deficiency (Lactose Intolerance)
People with lactose intolerance don’t have enough lactase to digest the complex lactose sugars in milk and dairy products. So they experience digestive discomfort if they consume any dairy products. Fortunately, digestive enzyme supplements can help relieve symptoms of lactose intolerance by providing your body with more lactase.
The Effect of Aging on Digestive Enzyme Production
As you age, your body typically produces fewer digestive enzymes, which could lead to malnutrition since you won't get as much nutritional value out of your food as you need.
Malnutrition is especially dangerous to older people. And depending on age, it could be a mortality risk. So we recommend older adults get their enzyme levels checked then get proper supplementation if needed.
Other Common Causes of Digestive Enzyme Deficiency
Enzyme deficiencies aren’t only genetic or caused by disease. Your lifestyle choices can also have an impact on your bodily functions.
Smoking, binge eating, drinking too little water, excessive alcohol drinking, and lack of exercise are among the most common lifestyle-based causes of digestive enzyme deficiencies. And, stress and malnutrition are major factors, too.
Can You Overdo It With Digestive Enzymes?
Unlike more popular supplements like vitamin C and omega-3, there isn't a standard recommended dosage for digestive enzyme supplements, especially since there are many types, and people can mix and match them depending on their needs.
Generally, you can follow the recommended dosage on the digestive supplement label. However, we recommend you research the type of enzyme supplemented to read more about the recommended doses for extra certainty.
Sources of Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes are naturally available in most foods. However, certain foods stand out among the rest for having a healthy abundance of natural digestive enzymes, so you should incorporate them into your dietary palette.
Moreover, digestive enzyme supplements can massively help if you’re unable to get enough digestive enzymes from your diet.
Natural Digestive Enzymes Foods
Pineapples are rich in bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme that helps digest proteins by breaking them down into their basic building blocks: peptides and amino acids. Bromelain is also widely available as a supplement for people who struggle with protein digestion.
Since the bromelain enzymes in pineapples are susceptible to heat, we recommend you eat your pineapples raw and fresh. You could also add it into a smoothie or a fruit salad for a nice dessert.
Papaya is a tropical fruit containing plenty of digestive and proteolytic enzymes that help break down proteins and absorb amino acids.
However, unlike pineapples, papaya fruits contain papain enzymes, which are different protease enzymes. And it's best to eat papayas raw and fresh since they're also susceptible to heat.
It seems like avocados always find their way in any blog post related to health! But it’s deservedly so; avocado is a delicious fruit that's nutritionally packed, high in healthy fats, and low in sugar.
Avocados contain lipase enzymes, which break down complex fats and oils into simpler fatty acids and glycerols, which are easier for the body to digest. And although the pancreas already secretes lipase, your body can sometimes use the extra help. So, try eating an avocado after a high-fat meal for easier digestion.
Bananas are famous for their high potassium content. However, did you know they’re also rich in natural digestive enzymes?
Bananas contain amylase and glucosidase enzymes. These two enzymes break down complex carbohydrates into simple-structured and easy-to-absorb sugars.
Amylase and glucosidase enzymes take effect before you even eat the banana as it's ripening. That's why a ripe banana typically tastes sweeter than an unripe one.
Raw honey is often used as a traditional remedy for many different conditions. Well, now we’re here to tell you that you can also consume it for better digestion. It contains:
- Amylase and diastase enzymes, which break down starch into sugars and maltose, respectively
- Proteases that digest proteins into amino acids
- Invertases, which work like sucrase enzymes in breaking down sucrose into simple fructose and glucose
Just make sure you use raw honey if you want all these benefits since processed honey is often heated well beyond the breaking point of these enzymes.
Like honey, ginger has a long history of being used in traditional medicine and home remedies, thanks to its numerous benefits. And some of those benefits lie in its digestive enzymes, zingibain, which break down proteins.
Digestive Enzyme Supplementation
Prescription Digestive Enzymes
People officially diagnosed with an enzyme deficiency need to take prescription digestive enzymes recommended by their doctors.
The most popular prescription digestive enzyme is the FDA-approved pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), including lipase, amylase, and protease enzymes.
Also, most cystic fibrosis patients have some form of digestive disorder, such as pancreatic enzyme insufficiency, so they rely on PERT for their digestive enzymes.
Many people don't go to a doctor for a digestive disorder diagnosis and instead opt for over-the-counter (OTC) digestive enzymes.
This is generally fine for less-serious problems, such as heartburn, acid reflux, upset stomach, and diarrhea. For these instances, taking any of the three major enzymes (amylase, protease, lipase) can significantly help relieve your condition.
Ethical Nutrition’s Digestive Enzyme Supplements
If you want a trusted source of high-quality enzyme supplementation, check out our new product, made entirely of pure organic and naturally-occurring ingredients.
Here at Ethical Nutrition, we have a code of providing the most efficient supplements in the most sustainable way possible.
That’s why all our supplements, including our digestive enzyme supplement, are vegan, have no unnecessary additives, and are delivered in fully recyclable packaging.
Moreover, our products cater to your convenience; only one digestive enzyme tablet is enough to fulfil your recommended daily intake.
Digestive enzymes are classified by the type of nutrient they break down, and they’re crucial for proper nutrient absorption and digestion.
The three major digestive enzymes are lipases, proteases, and amylases, which digest fats, proteins, and carbs.
However, other important enzymes like maltase, sucrase, and lactase break down complex sugars into simpler, more digestible building blocks.
Unfortunately, digestive disorders can develop due to many factors, which can be genetic, age-related, or lifestyle-based.
In any of these cases, though, you’ll need proper supplementation to remedy the enzyme deficiency. So check out our most recent digestive enzyme supplement, which will work wonders for your digestive health!