Digestive Enzymes

In the human body, digestive enzymes are released in fluids excreted by glands in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, and small intestines. These enzymes break down macromolecules (like proteins, fats and carbohydrates) into their smaller building blocks. There are over 100 digestive enzymes in total, but they can be grouped together in three categories:

  1. Proteases are enzymes that split long protein chains into small peptides and single amino acids.
  2. Lipases break down all kinds of fats into smaller fatty acids which are then packaged for absorption. Bile salts are essential for fat metabolism.
  3. Amylase break down carbohydrates into single glucose, fructose or galactose molecules. Other enzymes also break down fiber. Symptoms of Low Digestive Enzymes:

Without digestive enzymes, nutrients remain trapped in large molecules that can’t be absorbed by the intestines – everything needs to be in its smallest possible form to be assimilated into the body. Large molecules cause irritation, inflammation, fermentation and immune confusion throughout the gut.

  • Bloating after meals (either immediately, or within 3 hours)
  • Sensation of food “sitting” in the stomach
  • Quick to feel full (after just a few bites)
  • Gas
  • Visible pieces of undigested food in the stool
  • Floating stools
  • “Oil” on the surface of water in the toilet after passing stool – this indicates undigested fats

Digestive Enzymes for GERD & Heart Burn

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) and heart burn occur when acid flows backwards from the stomach into the oesophagus where the corrosive acid causes tissue damage and pain. Because the heart is anatomically close to the heart, this can feel like “heart burn” or a strong, sudden chest pain. Even though it feels like acid, heart burn and GERD are often actually caused by an insufficiency in gastric acids in the stomach – a condition called hypoclorhydria.

Conventional treatment such as antacids and alkalizers are designed to suppress the gastric acid – the opposite of what is necessary in many cases.

Supplementing with digestive enzymes can ease symptoms and frequency of GERD flare-ups, particularly if the supplement contains gastric enzymes or compounds that break down proteins:

  • Betaine hydrochloride (HCl)
  • Pepsin
  • Papain
  • Bromelain

Digestive Enzymes for Travel

Unfamiliar food can wreak havoc on the gut, and digestive enzymes can help to protect travellers against reduce reflux, bloating, constipation and loose stools [1]. But digestive enzymes don’t just break down food – they also break down bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi!

Pathogens frequently enter the body along with our food, but enzymes in saliva and the strong acid of the stomach destroy them before they can cause any trouble. Travelling increases the risk of food-borne pathogens making it through the stomach, for two reasons: travel stress and jet lag can both significantly reduce saliva and stomach acid production.

  • Consider a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme to break down fats, carbohydrates, proteins and pathogens.

Digestive Enzymes for Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is caused by an insufficient amount of the digestive enzyme, lactase. This is the enzyme that breaks down lactose molecules into its smaller, absorbable components – glucose and galactose. Without lactase, the body can’t digest lactose – it moves through the intestines intact and causes inflammation, immune reactions, and symptoms of bloating, diarrhoea, nausea, and sometimes vomiting [6].

While giving up dairy is the sure-fire solution for lactose intolerance, there are lactase enzyme supplements available – while they aren’t strong enough to completely prevent all symptoms of lactose intolerance, all the time, they are a great back-up after accidentally eating dairy, or for dealing with regular small amounts such as having milk in coffee.

Look for digestive enzymes supplements that contain:

  • Lactase

Digestive Enzymes for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

The causes of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is still not completely understood, but one contributing factor to symptom flair-ups seems to be anything that inhibits effective digestion of food. In theory, large particles of undigested food could irritate the bowel and initiate responses in the tissues that lead to diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, cramping and other IBS symptoms [3].

A 2017 study found that taking digestive enzyme supplements with every meal for four weeks improved symptoms of IBS in patients with other digestive diseases [4]. A smaller, earlier study in 2011 found that a broad spectrum digestive enzyme product improved symptoms in people who only suffered from IBS and no other digestive problems [5].

  • Look for broad spectrum digestive enzymes to treat IBS

Digestive Enzymes for Digestive Diseases

Serious conditions such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), chronic pancreatitis, and pancreatic cancer are commonly treated with digestive enzyme supplements. It is essential to speak to your doctor or a qualified naturopath before self-prescribing digestive enzymes for a serious condition as some enzymes may worsen the condition.

How to Take Digestive Enzymes

Take digestive enzymes on an empty stomach, about 30 minutes before eating major meals. Most people only require digestive enzyme supplements with large meals, rather than snacks. Start with 1 capsule (or one “recommended dose”) for three days – if you still experience symptoms, increase the dose by 1 capsule. Seek professional advice if 3 capsules is not making any difference to your symptoms.

5 Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements

#5 Zenwise Health Digestive Enzymes (180 capsules)

Zenwise EnzymesZenwise have blended key digestive enzymes with a combination of herbs to support digestion, such as peppermint, ginger, fennel, and turmeric. This is a powerful synergistic to help in the break down of carbohydrates (including fibre), protein and fats from stomach through to the small intestines. They’ve also added in a multi-strain probiotic and prebiotic complex to repopulate the gut with beneficial bacteria and heal the gut from digestive disturbances. This supplement has fantastic reviews with legitimate customers claiming that it is a “life-changer”!

This is a good choice if you’re looking for a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme and probiotic blend – great for digestive complaints that have an unknown origin. Just be sure to speak to qualified naturopath if you are already taking herbal or conventional medicine as some of the herbs in this supplement could cause adverse interactions.

#4 Global Healing Veganzyme (120 capsules)

veganzyme SupplementGlobal Healing have created a key blend of enzymes that support the digestion of all aspects of a healthy whole food diet. This is a great choice for people adopting a healthy diet but struggling to break down the extra fibre – this supplement contains over five fibre-digesting enzymes, along with powerful protein and fat digestive enzymes too.

#3 Rainbow Light Plant-Based Whole Food Enzyme Supplement (180 capsules)

Rainbow lightThis supplement is rapid release, vegan-friendly, and completely broad-spectrum. Rainbow Light have combined the most powerful and well-researched supplemental digestive enzymes with a powerful herbal blend to help your body break down and absorb food. This product is completely non-GMO, gluten-free, soy-free, yeast-free, and dairy-free. It even contains lactase to break down dairy sugars. This is also a great choice if you’re looking for an eco-friendly supplement – not only are the plant-sourced enzymes good for the planet, but the bottle is 100% recycled and recyclable.

#2 Garden of Life Chewable Enzyme Supplement (90 chewable tablets)

Garden of Life EnzymesGarden of Life have created a chewable tablet with a blend of 13 digestive enzymes, including papain. This is a stroke of genius – the act of chewing begins the process of digestion, so chewing a Garden of Life chew before eating will prime the body up the production and release of enzymes from digestive glands in the gut. The enzymes in the supplement itself are powerful too – each chew contains a therapeutic dose of enzymes to break down fibre, lactose and other carbohydrates as well as proteins and fats.

#1 Naturenetics DigestWise (90 capsules)

DigestwiseDigestWise uses 11 select digestive enzymes that have been created through microbes – completely vegan friendly and highly potent. This is a high-quality, reliable product with ingredients sourced from the USA, Denmark, Japan, Belgium and Finland. This is a broad-spectrum but very targeted digestive enzyme blend – only the strongest enzymes have been included, and each capsule is potent enough to deliver a therapeutic dose. DigestWise is a perfect choice if you’re looking for a pure, clean and effective digestive enzyme supplement without added herbs or nutrients.

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Further Reading:

  • [1] Roxas, M. (2008) Altern Med Rev., 13:4, 307 – 314. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19152478
  • [2] Ianiro, G., et al. (2010) Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases. Curr Drug Metab., 17:2, 187 – 193. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/
  • [3] Money, M. E., et al. (2011) Pilot study: a randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial of pancrealipase for the treatment of postprandial irritable bowel syndrome-diarrhoea. Frontline Gastroenterol., 2:1, 48 – 56. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3009417/
  • [4] Spagunolo, R., et al. (2017) Beta-glucan, inositol and digestive enzymes improve quality of life of patients with inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci, 21:1, 102 – 107. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28724171
  • [5] Ciacci, C., et al. (2011) Effect of beta-glucan, inositol and digestive enzymes in GI symptoms of patients with IBS. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci, 15:6, 637 – 643. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21796867
  • [6] Savaiano, D. A., et al. (2013) Improving lactose digestion and symptoms of lactose intolerance with a novel galacto-oligosaccharide (RP-G28): a randomized, double-blind clinical trial. Nutr J., 12, 160. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3878758/
About James Lyons

James Lyons (BHSc Nutritional Medicine) is a clinical nutritionist, medical writer, and educator. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and is passionate about improving public access to reliable and accurate health information.

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