Digestive Enzymes: The Answer to Gut Health & Nutrient Absorption

Dr. Group
by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
Published on
Papaya contains papain, a digestive enzyme, which can reduce swelling and heartburn.

“You are what you eat," has never been a more important statement, given the latest science in digestive health. Decades of research has confirmed the role the gut plays in your health. A healthy gut can boost your mood, energize your metabolism, and support a vigorous immune system, among other things. On the other hand, an unhealthy gut may do the opposite.[1] And yet it all comes down to this: you need an ample supply of digestive enzymes to break down food into nutrients the body can use.

Everyone produces digestive enzymes naturally, but some people's bodies do not make enough due to poor diet, chronic conditions, stress, or age. Without enough digestive enzymes, your body can't digest food properly, leading to bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea, among other symptoms. If your body can't digest food, you can also end up with lower nutrient absorption, which can lead to deficiencies.

In contrast, having an ample supply of digestive enzymes keeps you feeling vibrant — and wards off health concerns.

What Are Digestive Enzymes?

Before we talk about digestive enzymes, you need to know what the word enzyme means. An enzyme is a molecule that catalyzes — or kickstarts — a chemical reaction in the body by joining a "substrate" and making an enzyme-substrate complex; the enzyme helps the substrate break into smaller by-products.

All foods are composed of different macromolecules: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (lipids). The body uses various types of enzymes for different purposes; digestive enzymes specifically work to break down the food you eat. For example, lipases catalyze the breakdown of lipids while proteases catalyze the breakdown of proteins. Multiple enzymes work on carbohydrates: amylases break down starches (polysaccharides) into simpler molecules, maltase breaks down maltose (a disaccharide unit of two connected sugars) into one-unit simple sugars, lactase works on the disaccharide lactose, and sucrase breaks sucrose (table sugar) into glucose and galactose. There are more, but those are some of the most important ones.

Besides the digestive enzymes your body makes, you can find them in certain foods, particularly raw fruits, vegetables, and honey. If you eat raw pineapple, you'll get a healthy amount of bromelain, a protease which helps break down protein. If you eat raw papaya, it contains papain, another protease with many health benefits. Canning and cooking remove these natural enzymes from fruits.

How Do Digestive Enzymes Work?

In the body, different parts of the digestive tract produce different enzymes. As you start chewing, salivary amylase begins breaking down starches in your mouth. When food reaches your stomach, pepsin, a protease, continues to break proteins down into individual amino acids along with your stomach acid. Other enzymes pitch in too. The pancreas produces many enzymes, including the proteases trypsin and chymotrypsin, cholecystokinin, pancreatic lipase, and pancreatic amylase, and delivers them to the duodenum, the upper part of the intestines.

As food transits through your small intestine, digestive enzymes break it down even further. The small intestines produce lactase, sucrase, and maltase. Together, all of these enzymes and digestive system organs work together, allowing your body to absorb the nutrients it needs to function properly.[2] The rest passes out the body as waste.

Causes of Digestive Enzyme Deficiencies

Certain health conditions may lower your body's natural production of digestive enzymes, including:[3, 4]

  • Pancreatitis
  • Cancer
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Crohn's disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency
  • Chronic stress
  • Aging
  • Personal genetic makeup

Popular Digestive Enzyme Supplements

Although their main job involves breaking molecules down into smaller ones, studies have found that digestive enzymes do a lot more. If you're searching for the benefits of digestive enzymes, you probably want to know what taking additional ones can do for you — whether you get them from food or prefer a supplement.

You can buy dozens of over-the-counter (OTC) digestive enzymes to supplement your body's enzymes, helping to break down the different forms of macronutrients in your food. Common and useful digestive enzymes to look for in a supplement include protease, peptidase, cellulase, hemicellulase, lipase, lactase, pectinase, beta-glucanase, catalase, and phytase. Reference the chart below for what these enzymes can do for you.

Enzyme What It Breaks Down
Protease A general category of enzymes that break down proteins
Peptidase Converts protein subunits (polypeptides) into amino acids
Cellulase Breaks down cellulose found in plant and fungi walls
Hemicellulase Works on hemicellulose, a form of cellulose in plants and fungi
Lipase Catalyzes the conversion of lipids (fats) to fatty acids
Lactase Breaks down the milk sugar lactose (helpful for lactose-intolerance)
Pectinase Works on pectins, a polysaccharide in plant cell walls
Beta-glucanase Breaks down beta-glucans found in grains and fungi like Candida
Catalase Helps convert hydrogen peroxide to oxygen and water
Phytase Breaks down phytic acid, found in grains and seeds

The Benefits of Digestive Enzymes

In addition to helping the digestive process, some enzymes provide additional health benefits. When a digestive enzyme breaks down a molecule, it can prevent oxidative damage, reduce bloating, curb acid reflux, and optimize your nutrition. Here we list the top benefits of taking digestive enzymes.

Protection From Oxidative Damage

Catalase can help protect the body from oxidative damage by breaking hydrogen peroxide into water and hydrogen. If not broken down, peroxides accumulate in the body, and if left unchecked cause DNA damage and inflammation.[5] Wheatgrass, sprouts, leek, onions, and broccoli are all excellent sources of catalase. Some proteases, like papain, also have similar antioxidant properties, which means it protects the body from oxidative damage.

Relieve Constipation & Diarrhea

If you're having trouble with either constipation or diarrhea, digestive enzymes may help. Bromelain, the enzyme from pineapples, can inhibit the adhesion of bacteria, such as Escherichia coli (E. coli), to receptors in the intestines, which normalizes digestive symptoms like diarrhea.[6] Phytase can also help constipation, diarrhea, and other digestive issues by breaking down the indigestible form of phosphorous, called phytic acid, that's found in cereal grains and seeds.[7] Phytic acid can hinder mineral absorption in your body if not broken down. Allowing grains to sprout before eating them — either raw or cooked — can increase phytase activity, making the grains easier to digest.[8]

Soothe Acid Reflux

Lipase, amylase, proteases, and peptidases can help you avoid heartburn and acid reflux. Sources of these digestive enzymes include pineapple, papayas, avocados, and fungi — like mushrooms.[9] In one study, taking a digestive supplement that included bromelain along with sodium bicarbonate, sodium alginate, and essential oils significantly reduced acid-reflux-like indigestion. In the formulation, bromelain was the key source of enzymatic stimulation, researchers said.[10]

Halt Gas & Bloating

Studies have found that taking beta-glucan, inositol, and the digestive enzymes lipase, protease, cellulase, and pectinase may help normalize digestive issues like gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — a gastrointestinal problem characterized by bloating, urgent diarrhea, constipation, and lower abdominal discomfort.[11]

Reduce Redness & Swelling in the Body

Taking the digestive enzymes trypsin and bromelain may help normalize symptoms of osteoarthritis, a degenerative condition where cartilage wears down, causing tenderness, stiffness, and loss of flexibility.[12] Papain and bromelain are sometimes used by doctors to reduce swelling after minor surgeries.[13] Trypsin appears to help reduce redness and swelling by helping modulate cytokines (which rise when pain or inflammation are present).[14]

How to Naturally Boost Your Digestive Enzymes

There are plenty of natural ways to boost your digestive enzyme production or get them from foods. Here are a few we suggest.

Chew Your Food Better

Chewing is the initial action that kicks your digestive juice production into overdrive.[15] The more you chew, the more digestive enzymes you produce. In contrast, the less you chew, the fewer enzymes you produce, which can lead to a number of GI tract problems. Your body is smart and, depending on what you're eating, it produces the specific enzymes needed. For example, rye grain is higher in protein than other grains, so your body releases more proteases as you chew. With wheat bread, you'll produce more carbohydrate-dissolving enzymes.[16]

Eat Foods With Natural Digestive Enzymes

A number of foods are a great, natural source of enzymes. Some of the best options include:

  • Citric acid foods: Foods such as berries, citrus fruits like lemon and lime, tomatoes, cayenne peppers, Jerusalem artichokes, wine (due to fermentation), and sourdough bread all contain citric acid and trigger saliva production, which, in turn, increases digestive enzymes.
  • Pineapple: This delicious fruit contains bromelain, a popular digestive enzyme with many known health benefits, including curbing acid reflux and relieving constipation and diarrhea.
  • Papaya: Also called pawpaw, this tropical fruit contains papain which can reduce swelling and heartburn.
  • Banana: This fruit contains high levels of potassium, as many people know, and also helps digest complex carbs with the maltase and amylase it contains.
  • Raw honey: Contains several digestive enzymes, including catalase, invertase, and glucose oxidase. Choose raw honey, as processing it removes its natural live enzymes.
  • Avocados: These omega-3-rich fruits contain lipase, which breaks down fatty acids and other fats in the body.
  • Chewing gum: The act of chewing, aka mastication, helps produce digestive enzymes; it also increases gastric acid production.[17] Avoid gum that contains artificial sweeteners like aspartame or saccharine. Rather, select one that's sweetened with Stevia.

Digestive Enzyme Side Effects & Safety

For most healthy people, digestive enzymes are safe. People with specific conditions might want to consult a health care provider. For example, people with IBS produce high levels of cysteine-protease (an enzyme that breaks down the amino acid cysteine), so you may not want to take more proteases.[18] Research shows that plant-sources of these enzymes may be even better than animal sources because their compounds can survive the acidic stomach environment and get to where they're needed most: your colon.[19] Pregnant or breastfeeding women should consult their doctors before taking these or any supplements.

Digestive enzymes may interact with some medications. Trypsin and bromelain, for example, may have a moderate interaction with the antibiotics amoxicillin and oxytetracycline, respectively. Bromelain may also interact with anticoagulant and antiplatelet drugs.[20] If you have a digestive disorder like IBS or small-intestinal-bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), check with your healthcare provider before using supplementary digestive enzymes.

What Are the Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements?

If you take supplemental digestive enzymes, I recommend taking a variety of different ones to provide a complete spectrum of benefits. Bromelain and papain are popular. However, it's important to get others such as protease, amylase, lactase, beta-glucanase, and phytase. Some digestive enzymes are derived from cows, porcupines, and other animals so avoid these. Microbe- and plant-based enzymes operate under a wider spectrum of pH levels and are effective at lower doses than animal-derived enzymes.[19] VeganZyme® is a full-spectrum blend of digestive and systemic enzymes. I recommend it because it's vegan, toxin-free, and provides a comprehensive combination of enzymes.

Points to Remember

From amylase to protease, digestive enzymes make all of the natural foods of this earth available to you — one bite at a time. Your body produces digestive enzymes to help break down the variety of foods we eat. Lipases break down fats (lipids), proteases break down proteins, and various enzymes (amylase, cellulase, lactase, and others) break down carbohydrates. However, some people do not produce enough or otherwise need to take supplemental enzymes to keep digestion function optimal.

Digestive enzymes offer a variety of additional benefits, in addition to breaking down your food. Studies have found that digestive enzymes reduce redness, swelling, and irritation in the body, curb acid reflux, and normalize gut health. Taking a variety of different enzymes can help ensure that you get the right ones for ultimate health.

Are you taking digestive enzymes? Share your experience in the comments below!

References (20)
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  2. "How Does Digestion Work - Animation." IBD Clinic — University of Alberta. Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.
  3. "Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency." The National Pancreas Foundation. Accessed Oct 14, 2018.
  4. Winter TA, et al. "Impaired gastric acid and pancreatic enzyme secretion in patients with Crohn's disease may be a consequence of a poor nutritional state." Inflamm Bowel Dis. 2004 Sep;10(5):618-25.
  5. M Lisanti et al. "Hydrogen peroxide fuels aging, inflammation, cancer metabolism and metastasis." Cell Cycle. 2011; 10(15): 2440–2449.
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  7. Nadeem MK, et al. "An overview of anti-nutritional factors in cereal grains with special reference to wheat-A review." Pak J Food Sci. 2010;20(1-4),54-61.
  8. Ou K, et al. "Phytase activity in brown rice during steeping and sprouting." J Food Sci Technol. 2011; 48(5): 598–603.
  9. Godman H. "Digestive enzyme supplements for heartburn?" Harvard Health Publishing. Published 13 Apr 2018. Accessed 14 Oct 2018.
  10. Molteni M. "Can dietary integrators provide a clinical benefit in the treatment of functional dyspepsia? Results from a prospective study with TUBES Gastro." Minerva Gastroenterol Dietol. 2014;60(2):105-12.
  11. Ciacci C, et al. "Effect of beta-glucan, inositol and digestive enzymes in GI symptoms of patients with IBS." Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2011;15(6):637-43.
  12. Varayil JE, et al. "Over-the-counter enzyme supplements: What a clinician needs to know." Mayo Clinic Proc. 2014;89(9):1307–131.
  13. Zatuchni GI, Colombi DJ. "Bromelains therapy for the prevention of episiotomy pain." Obstet Gynecol. 1967;29(2),275-8.
  14. Lundberg AH, et al. "Trypsin stimulates production of cytokines from peritoneal macrophages in vitro and in vivo." Pancreas. 2000 Jul;21(1):41-51.
  15. Tasaka A, et al. "Influence of chewing time on salivary stress markers." J Prosthodont Res. 2014;58(1):48-54.
  16. Pentikäinen S et al. "Mastication-induced release of compounds from rye and wheat breads to saliva." Food Chem. 2019;270:502-508.
  17. Helman CA. "Chewing gum is as effective as food in stimulating cephalic phase gastric secretion." Am J Gastroenterol. 1988;83(6):640-2.
  18. Annaházi A, et al. "Luminal cysteine-proteases degrade colonic tight junction structure and are responsible for abdominal pain in constipation-predominant IBS." Am J Gastroenterol. 2013;108(8):1322-31.
  19. Ianiro G, et al. "Digestive enzyme supplementation in gastrointestinal diseases." Curr Drug Metab. 2016 Feb; 17(2): 187–193.
  20. Rathnavelu V, et al. "Potential role of bromelain in clinical and therapeutic applications." Biomed Rep. 2016 Sep; 5(3): 283–288.

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