Lots of people have started to take digestive enzyme supplements. They are available over the counter, so they must be useful right? Well, it’s important to first consider why you are taking them, and whether there are other alternatives that might be better.
As a practitioner, I find that many people with digestive issues want to jump straight into using a supplement. Digestive enzymes can be extremely helpful! But it’s important to note that there are alternatives as well.
So, let’s dive into a few types digestive enzymes, what they do, how they are useful as well as some alternatives you can try.
What are Digestive Enzymes?
Enzymes are molecules (typically proteins) that help to speed up chemical reactions in the body. They are important for a wide range of functions from making neurotransmitters like serotonin, to burning food for energy, to breaking down the food we eat into smaller pieces that our guts can absorb. Typically you can identify them as they end in “ase”.
Digestive enzymes are specifically those enzymes we use for digestion. They’re enzymes that our digestive system naturally makes and secretes when we eat.
All the macronutrients we eat (i.e. carbs, protein & fat) need to be broken down into their individual (smaller) parts so that we can properly absorb and digest them. They’re too big otherwise. And if we don’t absorb them properly, we can get symptoms of 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.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
The most common digestive enzymes that 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. (Pineapple is a great source!)
- 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.
Generally, 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).
One reason for these symptoms can be that the food particles are not broken down properly, and the larger pieces travel further down the digestive tract to the microbiota. This is where they can start breaking them down themselves. And this can spell trouble for certain people.
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 healthcare practitioner who knows your history.
To Consider Before Using Digestive Enzymes
You shouldn’t just jump to supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis or trying a few strategies first. There may be strategies you can learn about other than daily supplementation that can serve you better.
- My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax more, eat slower, and chew more thoroughly. This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract.
- The second step would be to try eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet (i.e. foods you are sensitive to – common ones are gluten and dairy) and see if that helps.
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- Also, considering the amount of stomach acid you are producing is important. Many people with heartburn symptoms are actually producing too little rather than too much. Check out my post on that here.
Using digestive enzyme supplements for a prolonged period of time may well justify an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner.
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 healthcare practitioner.