THE ULTIMATE DIGESTIVE ENZYMES GUIDE
By Emma Rose
Reviewed by Emily Gonzalez, ND for Scientific Accuracy
Digestive enzymes have an important job: They break down food into the building blocks that fuel your body. The best digestive enzymes are the ones your body produces naturally through regular digestion. But in some instances, these enzymes can get out of whack.
If you’re grappling with digestive issues like bloating, indigestion or difficulty transitioning to a new diet, you might benefit from taking digestive enzyme supplements.
But with so many brands on the shelf, it’s hard to know where to start—and whether you even need them. Read on for a jump-start guide to digestive enzymes: what they are, when they help and what to look for.
WHAT ARE DIGESTIVE ENZYMES?
Enzymes are proteins that your body produces to initiate specific chemical reactions. Your pancreas, stomach, salivary glands and the brush border of your small intestine all release enzymes that help break down your food into nutrients that your body can absorb. Enzymes also protect your gut by breaking down inflammatory compounds such as lectins, which can contribute to leaky gut.
Different enzymes work to digest different compounds in your diet, such as amino acids or sugars. For example, the lactase enzyme is needed to digest lactose sugars. Since most adults no longer produce lactase, many people cannot digest dairy and suffer from lactose intolerance.
You might have heard of Lactaid and Beano, common digestive enzymes people take after eating foods they have problems digesting like dairy products and certain complex carbohydrates. In these situations, extra enzymes can help your digestive system break down food to minimize damage and gastrointestinal distress.
But if a specific food irritates you, check in with your doctor or dietitian and start a conversation about how you’re feeling. For example, you may want to experiment with a dairy-free or gluten-free diet if your stomach says “no” when you try to digest food made with milk or wheat.
If you don’t feel your best after eating certain foods, it’s often best to avoid these foods entirely, rather than rely on over-the-counter enzymes to help you tolerate them. As part of a daily gut health routine, practice behaviors that support healthy digestion and a thriving gut microbiome, like staying hydrated, upping your intake of fiber-rich foods and gut health supplements—and even managing your stress (more on that below).
WHAT FACTORS LOWER ENZYME PRODUCTION?
All the healthy food in the world won’t do you much good if your body doesn’t have the enzymes required to break it down into smaller nutrients. Pancreatic problems, damage to the intestinal brush border or severe inflammatory digestive conditions, such as celiac or Crohn’s disease, can all interfere with regular digestion.
“Anything that’s going to drive inflammation in the gut is going to cause the brush border to be disturbed, and can impact pancreatic function as well,” says Dr. Tim Gerstmar, a Seattle-based naturopathic doctor and a digestive health and autoimmune specialist.
This can range from leaky gut, to bacterial overgrowth, to minor food intolerances. With low enzyme counts, undigested proteins can pass through your digestive system and cause more inflammation. Low stomach acid is also linked to low enzyme production, and your body naturally produces fewer enzymes as you age.
But some people are losing enzymes thanks to a more pervasive, yet common, threat, says Gerstmar.
“The single biggest dysfunction that impacts digestion is just stress,” he says.
Turns out, stress impacts gut health in more ways than one. High stress throttles your digestive system by sending your body into “fight or flight” mode, where your body reduces the energy it uses for digestion. If your ancestor was running from a predator, fully absorbing their last meal wasn’t a top priority.
Chronic stress can lead to low levels of digestive enzymes and difficulty fully digesting meals. Undiagnosed, these low levels can lead to malabsorption or low levels of nutrient absorption.
Some behaviors, like managing your stress and taking gut health supplements, can help support regular digestion. (We’re fans of Bulletproof Zen Mode for stress support and Bulletproof InnerFuel Prebiotic for gut health and immune support.†)
But in other instances, digestive enzyme supplements can help you get back on track. Keep reading to find out what can happen when digestive enzymes aren’t working the way they should.
SIGNS YOU’RE DEALING WITH LOW ENZYME COUNTS
- Frequent visible pieces of undigested food in stool
- Steatorrhea (undigested fats or oils in stool)
- Feeling a “rock” in your stomach
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Gas or bloating
- Unintended weight loss
- Malnutrition symptoms
- Stomach pain
Happy enzymes or not, it’s natural to experience similar digestive symptoms after indulging in a food that triggers sensitivities. When you notice symptoms like these even when eating nutritious foods, you may have an issue with your enzymes.
Enzyme deficiencies can be difficult to diagnose, since they often share symptoms with other digestive issues. These nonspecific signals often go misdiagnosed or unrecognized.
While direct tests for enzyme levels can be useful for diagnosing serious pancreatic enzyme problems, Gerstmar recommends stool tests to confirm most enzyme issues. These tests can show your health provider a more comprehensive picture of your enzyme health across your entire digestive tract, plus digestive markers such as bacterial or fungal overgrowth or gut inflammation.
ARE DIGESTIVE ENZYMES THE ANSWER?
A good first step when faced with these symptoms is to try an elimination diet, which eliminates common enzyme inhibitors like grains and legumes (and even potentially problematic veggies). You may be able to achieve healthy digestion simply by changing what you eat.
Ideally, your body produces enough of any given enzyme to handle your typical diet. Drastic diet changes can throw your body off its game, and supplementing the right enzymes may help smooth the transition and support your overall health and wellness.
But before you take the plunge into the world of the best digestive enzyme supplements, remember that digestion is a complex process and that the digestive system has lots of moving parts. (Pun intended!)
Before turning to supplementation, start with the big pillars of a healthy lifestyle to promote healthy digestion: eating a nutrient-dense diet based on whole foods, avoiding common inflammatory foods, managing your stress, staying hydrated and paying attention to how you feel, just to name a few.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT ENZYMES
If you’re interested in trying digestive enzymes, be sure to read the labels and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for taking a dietary supplement. You should also maintain an ongoing conversation with your healthcare provider or dietitian to figure out which one might be best for you.
With so many brands on the shelf, choosing the best digestive enzymes can be daunting. There are no one-size-fits-all answers for enzymes and other dietary supplements, and different combinations or dosages may work for different people. Avoid brands with fillers or artificial agents, and decide if vegetarian capsules or natural digestive enzymes are a must for your lifestyle.
TYPES OF DIGESTIVE ENZYMES SUPPLEMENTS
Enzyme supplements can be grouped into three categories by their source: animal, plant or sourced. Gerstmar most often recommends fungal-sourced enzymes for his patients as a potent, affordable and broad-spectrum option. Heads up: Since these enzymes are taken from mushroom or fungal extracts, they can have adverse effects on people with extreme fungi sensitivities.
Animal-derived enzymes (usually pancreatic products from pigs) are broad-spectrum, potent and most similar to our own enzymes, but tend to be more expensive and less shelf-stable, and they can be difficult for people with more sensitive immune systems.
Lastly, plant-based natural digestive enzymes, such as bromelain (found in pineapple) or papain (found in papaya), tend to be more limited and less potent. However, they are affordable and shelf-stable options.
Supplements can help out when enzymes are low all around, or you want to target a particular deficiency. Specific enzymes tackle specific compounds in your diet, so identifying which foods you struggle to digest can help narrow the enzymes you need. Most often, a combination supplement with a blend of multiple digestive enzymes can provide the best support for low enzyme production.
Below, you’ll find a quick list of some common digestive enzymes and the foods they help target.
- Cellulase: Cellulose in fiber-rich plants
- Lipase: Fats and oils
- Protease: Proteins
- Peptidase: Certain proteins such as gluten or casein
- Alpha-galactosidase: Starches in legumes
- Pectinase: Pectin in fruits
- Amylase: Starches
- Glucoamylase: Maltose sugar
- Invertase: Sucrose sugar
- Lactase: Lactose sugar from dairy
When starting out with a digestive enzyme supplement, try it out for three to five days to see how it impacts your digestion and whether it causes any side effects. While doses differ by brand, it generally helps to take enzymes directly before a meal.
“Broadly speaking,” says Gerstmar, “what you eat takes 24 hours to go through you.” If you don’t see improvement in a few days, it may be time for more troubleshooting.
Keep in mind that diet, stress or inflammation are often at the root of enzyme deficiencies, and supplementation might not always be the best answer to healthy digestion and overall health and wellness.
“The biggest factor that affects poor digestion is going to be eating too fast, eating too big of a meal and being stressed out while you do it,” says Gerstmar. “You’re setting yourself up for poor digestion.”
Remember that digestive enzymes aren’t the end-all, be-all: If Lactaid helps you feel better after eating dairy, great—but maybe it’s a sign that you should revisit how dairy fits (or doesn’t fit) into your lifestyle. Digestive enzymes can be a powerful tool for immediate relief of problems, but ultimately, the solution comes from identifying sources of inflammation and stress.
Of course, digestive enzymes are just one piece of the much larger digestion puzzle. Read on to learn more about how—and why—to improve your gut health.