What Are Digestive Enzymes?

By Dr. Rohit Singh

Digestive enzymes help us break down the food we eat into molecules that can be absorbed and used by our body.

I like to think of it like this: imagine your digestive system is a dishwasher and the food you eat are the dirty dishes you load into the dishwasher. Digestive enzymes are like the soap you add to the dishwasher. 

Without the soap, the water alone will be able to get the dishes somewhat clean… but when you add the soap in, the dishes come out sparkling clean.

We get digestive enzymes in two ways: our body produces some digestive enzymes on its own in the saliva, pancreas, liver and gallbladder, as well as on the lining of the intestines, and there are also naturally-occurring digestive enzymes in many foods.

The three primary digestive enzyme types are:

Protease - breaks down protein

Lipase - breaks down fat

Amylase - breaks down starches

But there are many more types of enzymes, including brush border enzymes, which are in the lining of the small intestine and include lactase, which breaks down the milk sugar lactose, and sucrase for breaking down sucrose. 

When Digestive Enzymes Go Wrong

Ideally, you should get plenty of digestive enzymes from the food you eat and your body’s own production…

But for many reasons, people are often left with inadequate digestive enzymes. These are some common reasons for inadequate digestive enzymes:

  • Stress
  • Genetic predisposition (common with lactose intolerance)
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI)
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Leaky gut
  • IBS
  • Microbiome dysbiosis 

When you’re lacking enzymes, you might notice:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Dyspepsia (aka feeling bad when you eat)
  • Dull hair, skin, and nails
  • Fatigue
  • Undigested food in stool
  • Constipation/diarrhea
  • Food intolerances

How Digestive Enzymes Can Help People 

Digestive enzymes can benefit many - maybe even most - people, but for those with health concerns, they are especially important. 

They reduce digestive symptoms. Digestive enzymes can reduce bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea - some of the most uncomfortable symptoms many people struggle with.

They can help expand your diet. Many people find digestive enzymes expand their list of “safe foods” and that they can even eat out at restaurants more easily. 

They improve nutrient absorption. Digestive enzymes can boost nutrient absorption, helping to naturally balance your weight.

When and How To Use Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes can be used in two ways:

With food: Take the enzymes at the start of a meal, so they can begin to digest the food right as you begin eating it. If needed, more enzymes can be taken mid-meal or at the end. 

Without food: When taken without food, digestive enzymes have an anti-inflammatory effect. They can even have an anti-biofilm effect when taken away from food. 

Both uses can be very beneficial for people and you may want to experiment with both.

Choosing The Right Digestive Enzyme

Understanding why and how to use digestive enzymes is the easy part… the tricky part is choosing the right product. 

Here’s what I look for:

  • Contains brush border enzymes, in addition to lipase, amylase, and protease.
  • High enough dose, because many supplements have far too low a dose to be effective!
  • Vegan and allergen-free, because many supplements are made from animal products.
  • Contains activated enzymes - this is MOST important. Enzymes require activation by a cofactor. If you don’t have what the enzyme requires to be activated, it doesn’t do any good. That’s why choosing an activated enzyme is key to getting good results.

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