Feel bloated or groggy after eating? Find yourself passing gas? Does your tummy rebel against certain foods? Are you overeating or bolting down food? Do you pop antacids? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to consider digestive enzymes.
What Are Enzymes?
Catalysts for chemical reactions in the body, enzymes are protein-based substances that bind with chemicals in the body, promoting and speeding the rate of biological reactions. “More than 2,000 different enzymes play an active role in digestion and other important bodily functions,” says nutritionist Marcia Zimmerman, MEd, CN.
“Think of your typical energy bar that contains vitamins, minerals, and sugars; energy exists in the nutrients contained in the bar, but they must be unlocked before we can utilize them. A random chemical process could take years,” writes Tom Bohager in Enzymes: What the Experts Know. Enzymes speed up this process dramatically, allowing our bodies to absorb and use the nutrients in our food.
Some experts estimate that 80 percent of the energy we use goes into digesting foods. Complete digestion of an average meal can take up to three days. Our digestive systems work 24/7, breaking down food and serving up nutrients.
After digestion only 20 percent of our body’s energy remains for cardiovascular, immune, neurological, reproductive, and respiratory functions. It makes sense to support the digestive process. “If you want to stay healthy or get healthy, you need to free up as much digestive energy as you can spare,” explains Bohager.
One way to do this is by eating more raw foods—aim for at least one meal a day of uncooked and minimally processed foods—to support digestion. “Like all animals, humans evolved on a diet of fresh, raw food containing abundant enzymes,” says CJ Puotinen, author of Natural Relief from Aches and Pains.
Enzymes in uncooked, unprocessed foods work to help your body with digestion. The 98.6-degree temperature in your mouth combined with naturally occurring enzymes in saliva help to break down fresh food.
By contrast, when you ingest cooked food, your digestive system has to produce the enzymes you need to break it down for assimilation. “Heat destroys the enzymes in raw food, and enzymes are adversely affected by long-term storage,” says Puotinen. “Because the same enzymes that ripen raw food also cause it to spoil, food manufacturers disable enzymes with pasteurization, pressure canning, and other high-heat processing.”
Sprouted grains contain numerous enzymes, including amylase that increases the digestibility of carbohydrates. Fermented soy foods (natto, tempeh, and soy sauce) contain enzymes that aid in the assimilation of soy protein, says research geochemist C. Leigh Broadhurst, PhD.
Unfortunately, the enzymes in raw foods break down only those specific foods in which they’re found. For indigestion, you may want to consider digestive enzyme supplements. But it’s important to discuss chronic indigestion with your healthcare provider to rule out serious health conditions and to ensure that you’re absorbing nutrients properly and don’t suffer from food allergies.
“All foods have potential nutrients,” says Anthony J. Cichoke, DC, PhD, who has written several books on enzymes. “Enzymes turn these potential nutrients into available nutrients. It’s like Fort Knox—you’ve got to unlock the door in order to get the treasure out.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, children often suffer malnutrition when they’re weaned from breast milk and put on cereal-based diets. In one clinical trial, enzyme supplementation increased youngsters’ protein intake from their largely vegan diet by 10 percent.
In addition, research suggests that an individual’s enzyme potential decreases with age. This is because—even as catalysts—enzymes do wear out and are eventually discarded by the body, leading to a loss of vitality.
The suffix “-ase” tacked on to the name of a food component designates it as an enzyme that helps break down that specific nutrient. For example, protease is an enzyme that digests proteins, lipase helps break down fats (or lipids), and cellulase is an amylase enzyme that works on cellulose, the fiber in fruits and vegetables. A commonly used enzyme, lactase helps people who have trouble digesting lactose (the milk sugar in dairy products) digest milk and milk-derived foods.
Digestive enzyme supplements usually take effect immediately—or within an hour or two of eating. Always follow package directions carefully, and make sure the enzymes you’re taking match the foods you’re eating.
Plant v. Animal
Plant-based enzymes represent about 80 percent of the enzymes found in health food stores. Two simple digestive enzymes come from tropical fruits: bromelain from pineapple and papain from papaya. Chewable papain tablets, commonly available in natural products stores, can help you digest protein. Dr. Broadhurst recommends that adults and children 12 and older take two to four tablets after heavy meals. But “there’s no reason to take papain on a daily basis, and children [in industrialized countries] should rarely require this supplement,” she adds.
The fungus aspergillus is grown on a variety of plants under laboratory conditions as a source of plant-based enzymes. Manipulating the type of aspergillus, as well as the pH, temperature, and other environmental conditions, allows enzyme manufacturers to create a variety of products for different needs.
Plant-based or microbial enzymes are vegetarian/vegan, so anyone can use them. They work in a broad pH range, making these supplements active in stomach acid and the rest of the body.
Secreted by the pancreas, pancreatin is another form of digestive enzyme, but this one comes from animals. If a healthcare provider recommends pancreatic enzymes instead of plant-based supplements, look for enteric-coated products so that the enzymes they provide will survive stomach acid. Some experts recommend taking these products with bicarbonate (baking soda) to create the necessary alkaline environment.
Digestive enzymes are not recommended for anyone with inflammation of the stomach lining. Also, people with latex allergies need to be aware that papain (an enzyme that has widespread uses beyond supplements) comes from the latex, or milky sap, of the papaya leaf or unripe fruit. These individuals may be chemically sensitive or allergic to this natural plant enzyme.
Nor is bromelain advised if you’re allergic to pineapple or meat tenderizer, which uses this enzyme. Bromelain may even strengthen certain drug effects and may be contraindicated for anticoagulant medications.
Also note that starch-blocking supplements interfere with the actions of amylases (enzymes that break down carbs). Flatulence is an unwanted side effect in this case.
Extra Support for Digestion
Chew thoroughly, and try to avoid drinking too much liquid with meals. (Instead, drink plenty of pure water throughout the day). And limit your alcohol intake. Make mealtimes as pleasant and relaxing as possible, so that stress doesn’t interfere with digestion.
Also read labels and warnings on any over-the-counter and prescription medications you take. Some meds can cause indigestion, as well as constipation and diarrhea.
An estimated 50 to 60 million Americans lack the enzyme lactase that breaks down milk sugar or lactose. Besides drinking milk to which lactase has been added or taking lactase in supplement form, look for foods containing lactobacillus bacteria that manufacture lactase. If you’re lactose intolerant, try cultured dairy products (buttermilk and yogurt) that contain lactobacillus and lactic acid.