If you aren’t a raw foodie, you may not realize the benefits of enzymes. In fact, every food we eat in its raw state has enzymes that help us break down and digest them. That means that every banana or shred of lettuce has what it needs for our bodies to use it.
But the more you cook, the fewer digestive enzymes you eat, and the harder it is to process your meals.
If you research popular dietary supplements, eventually you’re going to come across a category known as enzymes, or specifically digestive enzymes. But what are they – and should you be taking them?
In this article, we’ll explore these questions and more to help you make an educated choice for yourself!
First things first…
What Are Enzymes?
An enzyme is a molecule that speeds up cell function and chemical reactions. (1)
Exactly what function an enzyme speeds up depends on its type, which we’ll explore shortly.
Some enzymes break up larger molecules into smaller bits that your body can absorb easily. Other enzymes bind molecules together to form one.
In either case, this process accelerates exponentially, making enzymes incredibly useful if you put them to use properly.
In this article, when we answer the question of ‘what are enzymes?’ we’ll be exploring digestive enzymes in particular. These have grown steadily in popularity as a supplement due to their ability to combat and prevent symptoms of indigestion.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
Researchers believe that proteases came about at the earliest stages of protein evolution, underscoring its importance in biology. (3)
Proteases are crucial for catabolizing protein. This is the body’s process of breaking down proteins into amino acids.
Why is that so important?
Well, amino acids are what your body uses for crucial processes in the brain, muscles, immune system and more! (4)
Your body cannot produce amino acids on its own. It relies completely on your diet, and proteases are what take the protein you consume and turn it into this vital nutrient.
Lipases break fats down into smaller pieces, which helps your body digest food easier. (5)
Lipases also break your food into fatty acids and glycerol, which your body uses for energy.
Lastly, we have amylase enzymes.
Amylase enzymes are crucial for helping your body process starches and glycogen. Were it not for amylase enzymes, your small intestine would have a very difficult time processing these ingredients. (6)
Every one of these enzymes is crucial to optimal function in your body.
If your body is unable to produce any of these three digestive enzymes – which can happen for a number of reasons – you’ll have a hard time digesting food.
Interestingly, several health conditions can cause low levels of these enzymes, including cystic fibrosis, pancreas inflammation or pancreatic cancer. (7)
It’s important to look out for symptoms of indigestion so you can speak with your doctor about potential digestive enzyme supplementation before the issue gets out of hand. These symptoms include the following: (8)
- Abdominal pain
- Reduced appetite
Now, these symptoms are not all-inclusive. You also shouldn’t use this list to self-diagnose yourself with an enzyme problem. Rather, use it as a guideline for identifying if you need to talk with a doctor about the issue.
Once you raise the issue, your doctor can properly diagnose you and recommend an appropriate course of action.
As for tests on the market that claim to be able to tell you if your digestive enzyme levels are low, experts typically advise against giving their readings too much weight as they’re notoriously inaccurate.
What Causes Enzyme Deficiency?
The medical term for “enzyme deficiency” is exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). This condition occurs when your pancreas does not produce enough digestive enzymes on its own. (9)
Your pancreas is responsible for producing all three of the digestive enzyme types we discussed earlier.
Two common causes of EPI are are cystic fibrosis and chronic pancreatitis.
The former of those is a life-threatening disorder that develops during childhood. Because of the condition, your body produces thick mucus that clogs up your digestive system and stops your body from releasing enzymes naturally.
As for chronic pancreatitis, that condition involves inflammation of the pancreas. As this inflammation gets worse, normal pancreatic tissue turns into scar tissue, which prevents enzymes from leaving that area of your body.
Researchers have confirmed a link between smoking and chronic pancreatitis. (10)
There are other conditions that can cause EPI, including:
- Crohn’s disease
- Dumping syndrome
- Gastrointestinal surgeries
Doctors sometimes have difficulty diagnosing EPI because it shares symptoms with other digestive disorders. Two of the most common EPI symptoms, however, are diarrhea and weight loss.
The diarrhea that occurs during EPI is watery, pale and extremely foul smelling.
Consult with a medical professional to determine whether you have EPI.
What Are Enzymes Supplements Good For?
Now that we’ve answered the question of ‘what are enzymes?’ it’s time to explore digestive enzymes, which have become a popular alternative to enzyme replacements that require a prescription.
First things first, a question that many people ask is…
Are Digestive Enzyme Supplements Safe?
Experts believe that digestive enzyme supplements are safe when you use them according to manufacturer instructions.
There are some enzymes, like bromelain, that you should avoid if you’re taking blood-thinning medication, however. This is because bromelain can also work to thin your blood. The two combined can cause excessive thinning, which can be a serious condition.
Supplements that contain alpha-galactosidase may also be unsuitable for people taking diabetic medications. The compound can reduce these medications’ effectiveness. They may also be unsafe for people with diabetes. (11)
If you are sensitive to certain foods – which can happen if you are experiencing digestive issues – pay special attention to the ingredients list of any digestive enzyme before settling on it.
If a supplement does not explicitly say on the label or in the product description that it doesn’t contain gluten, dairy or soy, you should investigate further to find out if it does.
What’s The Difference Between Over The Counter (OTC) Enzymes & Prescribed Ones?
There are strong digestive enzymes that doctors will only prescribe to people suffering from specific conditions. (12)
These conditions usually involve your pancreas. This can include things like pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer or cystic fibrosis.
Two popular brand names that provide these medications are Creon and Pancreaze. If your doctor prescribes you these medications, follow their advice and do not try to replace them with over-the-counter medications on your own.
If you do not have a serious medical condition and your symptoms are primarily bloating or gassiness, a medical professional will likely give you the go-ahead to use over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements.
As you should with any supplement, consult with a medical professional before using digestive enzymes.
Which Digestive Enzyme Should You Take?
Thanks to our ‘what are enzymes?’ section, you now know about the three types of digestive enzymes.
For optimal results, you’ll want to find an enzyme supplement like ours that contains all three types. As mentioned earlier, all three are crucial for proper bodily function, and if you’re having trouble generating one type you’re likely having trouble with the others as well.
One study looked at individuals who frequently suffered from chronic diarrhea. When researchers gave the patients a supplement containing all three types of digestive enzymes, they noticed a significant reduction in their symptoms. (13)
Another study saw researchers give a similar supplement to patients with IBS. The supplement significantly reduced the patients’ bloating, flatulence and abdominal pain. (14)
In this article, we answered the question, “What Are Enzymes?” And we discussed common reasons for taking them, as well as precautions you should take while doing so.
Essentially, there are three main types of digestive enzymes – protease, lipase and amylase. Remember – each of these is crucial for healthy bodily function.
Further, two common causes of enzyme deficiency are cystic fibrosis and chronic pancreatitis. Risk factors for the latter include regular smoking.
But be sure to consult with a medical professional if you suspect that you are suffering from an enzyme deficiency.
Lastly, if a doctor clears you to use a digestive enzyme supplement, look for one that contains all three types of enzymes – like ours!