What Are Digestive Enzymes – And Do You Need Them?

If you’ve ever had a meal and felt uncomfortable for hours after–think bloating, gas, indigestion, or diarrhea–you know just how much the experience can put a serious cramp in your quality of life (pun intended!) And while it's comforting to know you're not the only one dealing with this (according to the National Institutes of Health, up to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive issues), you can't help but wonder if there was an 'easy fix' that would offer you some comfort from the downright painful symptoms (1). Well, guess what? There is, and it comes in the form of digestive enzymes.

What are digestive enzymes? 

What are digestive enzymes?

A disclaimer before heading into the discussion: your body naturally secretes digestive enzymes (i.e. they are naturally-occurring)–some are secreted in your mouth, and others further down in the digestive tract (2). Regardless, digestive enzymes are pretty much what they sound like: enzymes that help ‘digest’ the foods you eat. Without them, your body can’t break down your foods into smaller, usable nutrients that can be absorbed through the wall of your small intestine, then distributed through the bloodstream. Ultimately, you can think of digestive enzymes as the key to ‘unpacking’ your food’s nutrients.

Categories of digestive enzymes

There are 3 main digestive enzyme categories: proteases help break down protein, amylases break down starches and sugar, and lipases break down fats. Under these categories, there are several other enzymes responsible for breaking down specific foods; some of which include (3):

  • Pepsin – Found in your stomach’s gastric juice, pepsin helps break down protein into smaller units called polypeptides.
  • Cellulase – Helps digest high-fiber foods like asparagus, beans, and broccoli, which can cause excessive gas and, thus, bloating and flatulence.
  • Lactase  Breaks the sugar lactose (i.e. the sugar in milk) into glucose and galactose.
  • Invertase – Also known as beta-fructofuranosidase, invertase helps split sucrose into its parts: glucose and fructose.

Do you need more digestive enzymes?

Now, you may be wondering, “Why would I need more digestive enzymes if my body is already secreting them?" Good question. And the answer to that is relatively simple. As long as your body can produce these enzymes in the amounts needed for the foods you're consuming daily, you're fine. The trouble, however, occurs when they don't–as evidenced by all the troubling symptoms you're experiencing after a heavy meal. But wait… Where's the evidence that getting more digestive enzymes truly works? What sort of benefits are we talking about here?

Don’t worry; there’s plenty of research to back the numerous purported benefits of supplemental digestive enzymes. Let’s take a look at some of them.

Alleviates symptoms of IBS and IBD

IBS is classified as a functional gastrointestinal disorder–meaning there is some type of disturbance in bowel function (4, 5). The condition does not cause detectable inflammation on imaging, and there is no sign of disease or abnormality during an exam of the colon. On the other hand, IBD is classified as a disease and is known to cause actual, destructive inflammation and possibly permanent harm to the intestines (6, 7). This can be seen during diagnostic imaging. Nonetheless, both conditions can cause similar symptoms: abdominal pain, cramps, constipation, and diarrhea. Uncomfortable (and potentially embarrassing), to say the least.

Thankfully, research suggests that IBS and IBD sufferers could seek relief from these symptoms by getting additional digestive enzymes. In clinical studies spanning over 570 individuals with IBD, IBS, or chronic stomach inflammation, supplementation with digestive enzymes helped improve symptoms such as heartburn, bloating, constipation, painful bowel movements, gas, stomach pain, and even inflammation (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). If you’re wondering how supplementation helps, exactly (i.e. its mechanism): cell studies show that digestive enzymes help lower several inflammatory markers–including IFN-γ, TNF-alpha, GM-CSF–involved in IBD. 

Relieves pain related to arthritis

Constantly battling your limbs in the morning? Struggling with creaky, achy joints? Here’s a surprise: digestive enzymes could be of help! In multiple studies of more than 1,000 participants with knee or shoulder osteoarthritis (i.e. inflammation of the joints), digestive enzyme supplements decreased joint pain, swelling, and stiffness–while enhancing the quality of life and improving knee or shoulder function (16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21).

More recently, a 2015 randomized, double-blind clinical study compared a commercial enzyme preparation containing trypsin, rutin, and bromelain with the NSAID diclofenac in the treatment of 150 patients with knee osteoarthritis. The result? Researchers found that the commercial preparation of digestive enzymes produced significant improvements in joint pain and function after 12 weeks compared with the NSAID–including significant improvements in knee joint flexibility and the ability to walk for a distance (22).

Facilitates muscle healing after intense exercise

Post-workout soreness (aka delayed onset muscle soreness) is common–but that knowledge doesn't make hobbling around the house any more bearable. So, what can be done to boost muscle recovery and get you back to your exercise of choice ASAP? You guessed it—digestive enzymes. According to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences that involved 20 men, protease supplements sped up muscle healing and lessened perceived increases in pain after intense exercise (23). This finding is in line with another study back from 1965, which found that digestive enzyme supplementation helped facilitate the healing process, plus reduced pain and swelling associated with injuries (24).

And more recently: a 2016 study published in the Journal of Nutrition Science Research found that compared to placebo, participants taking a branded enzyme blend reported significantly reduced pain and tenderness after a treadmill running test (25).

Can you get more digestive enzymes from your foods?

Of course, you can! As it turns out, many foods naturally contain enzymes for digestion. Below, find a (non-comprehensive) list of foods that are high in natural digestive enzymes:

  • Pineapple – This delicious tropical fruit contains a group of digestive enzymes called bromelain, proteases responsible for breaking down protein into its building blocks, including amino acids (26).
  • Mango – Contains the digestive enzymes amylase, a group of enzymes that break down carbohydrates from starch (i.e. complex carb) into simple sugars like glucose and maltose (27).
  • Papaya – Like pineapples, papayas also contain proteases that help break down proteins. However, they contain a different group of proteases known as papain (28).
  • Honey – There’s even more reason to love this sweet, sticky liquid now; honey contains several digestive enzymes, including diastases (breaks down starch into maltose), amylases (breaks down starch into glucose and maltose), invertases (breaks down sucrose into glucose and fructose), and proteases, which breaks down proteins into amino acids (29, 30, 31, 32).
  • Banana – Contains amylases and glucosidases, two groups of enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates (e.g. starch) into smaller and more easily-absorbed sugars (33).
  • Avocado – This wildly-popular fruit contains the digestive enzyme lipase, which helps digest fat into smaller molecules, including fatty acids and glycerol, which are easier for the body to absorb (34).
  • Kiwifruit – An edible berry that's often recommended to ease digestion, kiwifruit is an excellent source of a protease known as actinidain, which helps digest proteins–and is even commercially used to tenderize tough meats (35, 36)!

That said… It’s undoubtedly challenging for you to get all the digestive enzymes you’d need from whole foods and dietary sources–especially if you don’t have easy access to the tropical fruits listed (or if they’re just crazy expensive).

This is where a digestive enzyme supplement comes in 

Want an easy, fuss-free way of getting all the digestive enzymes your body needs to feel better? Then you may benefit from a digestive enzyme supplement. You’ll find that many of the over-the-counter digestive supplements available on the market are modeled around the 3 primary categories of digestive enzymes found naturally in your body: protein-, fat-, and carb-specific–so you get everything you need in a pill.

However, do note that these supplements are not medications. That means the FDA doesn’t regulate them. And unfortunately, there have been cases where reviews have found that some enzyme products did not contain all the enzyme activity expected from labels–and worse, some weren't even labeled clearly enough for you to know their ingredients. What you can do to sure that the supplement you're getting actually does what it promises is to look out for seals of approvals from private groups, including the Natural Products Association and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). That's because to earn one of these seals, the digestive enzymes–and products in general–have to be made via good manufacturing procedures and contain what's on the label.

Want more digestive enzymes in your system–and now?

Dr. Danielle Gut Assist Digestive Enzymes

Then definitely check out Dr. Danielle’s Digestive Enzymes. It contains all the categories of enzymes that'll help with improving your digestion (plus other benefits!): proteases (to break down proteins), lipases (to digest fats), and amylases (to break down starches and sugars). As is expected of a Dr. Danielle's product, it is also GMP-certified–this way, you can rest assured you're buying a high-quality product. Time for better digestion!

To Your Health and Happiness, Doctor Danielle

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