Digestive Enzymes: What are they and what do they do?
For the average healthy person, digestion probably isn’t something you think about on a daily basis. But the amazingly complex digestive system involves multiple steps so you can break down food and absorb the nutrients.
One of these steps involves the secretion of digestive enzymes. Your body naturally makes enzymes to help transform your food into substances your body can actually absorb and use. Sometimes supplemental digestive enzymes are also taken to provide digestive support while also optimising the absorption of the nutrients from our food.
In this article, you will learn all about digestion, why we need enzymes, and how supplemental enzymes can add an extra layer of digestive help.
How does digestion work?
Digestive enzymes are primarily secreted by your pancreas in response to food intake. However, small amounts are also released from your intestine and found in saliva. They are produced specifically to help you break down carbohydrates, fat, and proteins from your food so you can use the nutrients in your body.
If you’ve ever heard that digestion begins in the mouth, it’s because your saliva contains the digestive enzyme amylase. As you chew your food, amylase from your saliva helps break down larger carbohydrates like bread or pasta into smaller simple sugars.1
As food moves from your mouth down through your digestive tract into your stomach where it’s broken down into even smaller pieces with the help of hydrochloric acid and other gastric juices. The journey continues as the liquid mass of broken-down food and gastric juices, called chyme, moves down to your small intestine, the primary location for nutrient absorption.2
The movement of food components into your small intestine triggers your pancreas to release digestive enzymes. The enzymes complete the process until the nutrients are released and absorbed to be used by your body.3
Whatever is left over, mainly chyme mixed with water, salt, and plant fibre, moves to your large intestine for absorption or excretion.
Each of these steps ensures you can absorb nutrients from your food and not feel discomfort after eating.
Why might a supplemental digestive enzyme blend be helpful?
Taking a supplemental digestive enzyme could be beneficial to support the body’s natural digestive process.4 For example, certain enzymes may make it easier to digest a rich, high-fat meal without feelings of discomfort like gas, bloating, or fullness.5 This doesn’t mean that your body isn’t making the enzyme, but the supplemental could further support the process.
Some people also notice they have difficulty digesting certain types of food or just notice occasional feelings of discomfort after eating. Assuming you’ve visited a health care practitioner and have no other medical condition, taking enzymes can be especially helpful to support healthy digestion for people with digestive issues without a known cause.
A study on various digestive symptoms like bloating and excessive fullness after eating or burping found that taking a digestive enzyme significantly improved symptoms.6
Additionally, sometimes the body’s natural production of enzymes can be temporarily affected by stress, medications, or excessive alcohol intake, so supplemental enzymes can help in the short term.7
What ingredients are in supplemental digestive enzyme blends?
Supplemental enzymes are designed to match and support the enzymes made by your body.8 As such, they facilitate the normal breakdown of the food you eat, so you can use the nutrients. Generally, supplemental digestive enzymes are taken with meals to match the natural secretion of enzymes from your pancreas that happens after you eat.
The following are some of the enzymes you may see in supplements. Each can be taken on its own or together in complementary formulas.
Amylase helps break down complex carbohydrates into smaller sugars. Many carbohydrates are found in long chains that the body can’t absorb, so they need to be shortened into single units to be used by your body.
There are several types of amylase. In addition to salivary amylase, there’s also amylase found in your small intestine that helps complete the breakdown of starches into simple sugars.9
Proteases are enzymes that break down proteins into smaller units called amino acids.10 Amino acids are considered the building blocks of proteins as all proteins are made up of specific patterns of amino acids.
When you eat something with protein, the food is first denatured by hydrochloric acid and other gastric secretions in your stomach. Denaturation means the protein is unfolded from its functional shape, making it easier for enzymes to do their job. Once denatured, proteases (and several other enzymes) further break down the protein into amino acids for absorption in the small intestine.11
Lipase breaks down the third macronutrient, fats, and oils (lipids) into smaller fatty acids and glycerol (the backbone of fat molecules). Like proteins or carbohydrates, fats have a much larger composition than can be absorbed, so they need to be further broken down.12 Lipase comes from the pancreas and stomach in response to fat in your meal. There’s even some found in your saliva, similar to amylase.
Bromelain is an interesting supplemental digestive enzyme because it comes from a pineapple stem.13 Bromelain supports a healthy functioning digestive system to help break down and digest protein.
Interestingly, some research also suggests that when bromelain is taken between meals, it can help support healthy musculoskeletal function.14
As the name suggests, cellulase is an enzyme that supports the breakdown of cellulose or plant fibre in the body. Cellulose is part of the plant wall in fruits and vegetables, but we don’t have the enzymes to digest this fibre.15 While some people tolerate high amounts of fibre, others notice extra gas and bloating after eating it.
But fibre is a vital part of a healthy diet, so cellulase may make it easier to meet your fibre recommendations even if you find it difficult to digest.16 It helps break down the cell walls to optimise the digestion of plants so you can also extract more of the nutrients from the foods.17
Lactose, a sugar found in dairy products, is broken down by the enzyme lactase.18 While your body makes lactase, many people don’t make enough and notice intolerance to dairy with symptoms like bloating and gas.19 Lactase supplementation can help fill in the gaps and make consuming foods like milk, yogurt, or cheese easier and more comfortable.
Betaine hydrochloric acid (HCL) is a supplement that may support healthy acid levels in the stomach. As mentioned above, HCl is needed for the initial breakdown and degradation of food before it moves to the small intestine. If you don’t have enough, it can be difficult to digest your food. Betaine works similarly to your body’s natural production of HCl to support optimal gastric pH for protein digestions and other nutrients.20
Can you get digestive enzymes from food?
In addition to pineapple, some other foods do contain natural digestive enzymes, so you can try including more of these foods in your diet to naturally support digestion:
- Fermented foods
Digestive enzymes wrapped up
Your body naturally produces and secretes and makes enzymes to help break down and absorb nutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals from your food. However, supplemental enzymes could add additional support to help with occasional symptoms or optimise digestion in some cases.
If you aren’t sure if digestive enzymes could help, it’s always recommended to have a conversation with your health care practitioner. They can look at your personal health history to make an individualised recommendation tailored to you.
Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian and freelance health writer. She has a master’s degree in nutrition and over ten years of experience as a registered dietitian. You can learn more about Caitlin Beale, MS, RDN at www.caitlinbealewellness.com. [optional]
+The views expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Pure Encapsulations®.
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