It's hardly surprising that your digestive system is crucial to your health. It transports food from the mouth to the stomach, breaks it down into absorbable nutrients for energy, and shuttles waste out of the body. If your gastrointestinal tract isn't healthy, you wouldn't be able to nourish yourself. Or survive. It's that simple. But in recent years, in contrast to traditional beliefs, scientists have discovered that your gut's role isn't only limited to processing food. Instead, it appears able to help control your blood sugar, produce vitamins, manage cholesterol, fight off infections, communicate with your brain, and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, alongside hundreds of other functions (1, 2, 3, 4)!
Your Diet Influences Your Gut Health
If you're like many health-conscious individuals out there, you, too, would have scoured the Internet for ways to improve your gut health. Read enough articles, and you’ll notice that there’s little – to no! – variation in tips; the common underlying theme is always your diet. To improve your gut health, you’ll have to eat: a diverse range of foods; lots of vegetables, legumes, beans, and fruits; and whole grains, amongst others (5, 6, 7, 8, 9). This is where you might run into a potential problem.
What if your body isn’t even producing enough digestive enzymes to break all these gut-beneficial foods down? Think about it. In the best-case scenario, your body ends up passing out all these foods without absorbing their nutrients (i.e. there’ll be no improvements in your gut health). But in the worst-case scenario? Chunks of undigested food are going to end up in your small intestine, where they'll begin to ferment – uncontrollably (10, 11). This is where you say hello to excess gas, bloating, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Wait, you'll end up in a worse state than before? Yep. Consider yourself warned. So, before you make drastic changes to your diet in an attempt to promote gut health, you might want to look into increasing your levels of digestive enzymes. After all this talk about digestive enzymes, you might still be confused. What are digestive enzymes – and more importantly, what do they do?
Digestive enzymes are proteins that your body naturally produces to break down your food properly and absorb the subsequent nutrients (12). Your mouth, stomach, and small intestine produce some digestive enzymes. However, the majority of it is produced by your pancreas, which floods the small intestine with various digestive enzymes. These enzymes can be split into 3 categories: proteases to digest protein, lipases to digest fat, and amylases to digest carbohydrates (13).
Will Increasing Your Digestive Enzyme Level Improve Gut Health?
Okay, so digestive enzymes are responsible for breaking your foods down into easily-absorbed nutrients. That’s undoubtedly good for your gut health. Remember everything mentioned previously about undigested food fermenting (unnecessarily!) in the digestive tract? But hold on a minute. If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that your body already naturally produces digestive enzymes. Wouldn’t adding more into the mix be redundant?
Research says no. Multiple studies suggest that digestive enzyme supplementation can improve gut health – particularly for those suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Take, for instance, this 2011 pilot study published in Frontline Gastroenterology (14). Researchers randomly assigned 69 patients with IBS to 2 groups: one was given pancrelipase (i.e. a digestive enzyme that breaks down fat), while the other was given a placebo before consuming foods known to trigger their symptoms. The findings? Those treated with the digestive enzyme experienced a significantly greater improvement in their symptoms, such as cramping, bloating, and pain.
A 2017 study published in the European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences also found that IBD patients who’d supplemented with digestive enzymes reported significantly more improvements in their symptoms than those who’d only been given the standard treatment option (i.e. mesalamine) (15). Ultimately, if you have any digestive disease – including acid reflux, gas, bloating, and Crohn’s disease – the current scientific literature strongly suggests that digestive enzymes can help.
Are Digestive Enzymes Dangerous?
Short answer: no, digestive enzymes are not dangerous. After all, your body already naturally produces them! Unless you’re taking digestive enzymes in very high dosages, the risks for most enzyme supplements are pretty minimal. Even if you experience side effects, they're typically mild – and include stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting (16). There's also the possibility of suffering an allergic reaction to digestive enzymes. But of course, it never hurts to consult your primary healthcare doctor before supplementing (as with all other supplements).
Can I Increase My Levels Of Digestive Enzymes Naturally?
Looking to increase your levels of digestive enzymes naturally – but not a fan of supplements that may be full of artificial filler ingredients and unnecessary additives? (By the way: not all supplements available on the market are subpar, but we'll get to that in a bit.)
Natural Food Sources Of Digestive Enzymes
You’re in luck. As it turns out, there are plenty of natural food sources rich in digestive enzymes! Here are 7 examples:
Contains a group of enzymes called bromelain; these enzymes are proteases, which break down protein into its building blocks, including amino acids (17).
Contains a group of proteases known as papain, which has been shown to help ease several digestive symptoms of IBS, including constipation and bloating (18).
Contains the digestive enzymes amylases, a group of enzymes that break down carbohydrates from starch (i.e. a complex carbohydrate) into simple sugars like glucose and maltose (19).
Contains several digestive enzymes, including diastases (breaks down starch into maltose), amylases (breaks down starch into sugars like glucose and maltose), invertases (breaks down sucrose into glucose and fructose), and proteases, which break down proteins into amino acids (20, 21, 22, 23).
Contains amylases and glucosidases, 2 groups of enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates (e.g. starch) into smaller and more easily absorbed sugars (24).
A fermented milk beverage; contains many digestive enzymes, including lipase, proteases, and lactase (25, 26).
Doesn’t contain digestive enzymes per se, but instead, bacteria of the Bacillus species, which produce proteases, lipases, and amylases (27, 28). As mentioned earlier, these enzymes digest proteins, fats, and carbs, respectively.
A Natural Digestive Enzyme Supplement Is Your Best Bet
By now, you must have noticed that the majority of the natural dietary sources of digestive enzymes only contain a single type of digestive enzyme. Imaginably, that’s not going to be the most effective at improving your gut health – seeing as to how you’re most likely consuming all 3 macronutrients (i.e. carbohydrates, fats, and protein) across your diet. And just in case you were thinking of stuffing yourself with honey, kefir, and kimchi… Don’t - unless in moderation. It’s not a good idea. What you should do, however, is look for a natural – yes, this exists! – supplement that contains a blend of digestive enzymes. In other words: one that includes proteases, amylases, and lipases.
Things To Look Out For In A Digestive Enzyme Supplement
And that begs the question: “How would I know if the digestive enzyme I’m opting for is suitable? Or even worth spending money on?” Good question. Here are a few things to take note of when browsing the shelves:
Source Of Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzyme supplements can be grouped into 3 categories by their source: animal, plant, or fungal-sourced. You want to avoid animal-derived enzymes whenever possible; that’s because these tend to be less shelf-stable (29, 30). To make matters worse, they’re often more expensive than either your plant- or fungal-sourced enzymes.
Activity Units Per Serving
Here's something you should know: instead of weight (i.e. mg), digestive enzyme supplements' potency is measured in something called 'activation units'. And each digestive enzyme type has its own activation unit (31). Protease is measured in HUT, amylase in DU, and lipase in FCCIP. So, whenever you compare between supplements, pick the one with the highest activity units per serving.
Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t regulate digestive enzyme supplements. That means you'll always have to deal with the risk of your supplement not containing the enzymes it says it does, or worse, containing questionable ingredients, which have been linked to side effects. That's why you should always scan the ingredient list of your supplement. Make sure it's free from fillers, binders, excipients, and flow agents.
Seals Of Approval From Private Groups
For added peace of mind, you should also keep an eye out for seals of approval from private groups – including the Natural Products Association, USP Quality Supplements, and Good Manufacturing Practices. To earn one of these seals, the products will have to be made via good manufacturing procedures and contain what's on the label. So, if you spot the seals on the bottle of the supplement? You know you're getting your money's worth.
The Digestive Enzyme Supplement You’re Searching For
Okay, but let's be honest. There are so many digestive enzyme supplements available out there! Who has the time to pore over the back of every single bottle? Not you. Well, if you're looking for a shortcut to finding the best digestive enzyme supplement out there, here's what you're looking for: Dr. Danielle’s Digestive Enzymes. Non-animal-derived. Contains a blend of all the enzymes you'll need. Plus, it is GMP-certified. It ticks all the boxes.