Digestive enzymes are special proteins your body makes
to help break down the foods you eat into smaller, absorbable nutrients. When digestive
enzymes are in short supply, your body cannot fully digest or absorb nutrients in
This can lead to uncomfortable digestive symptoms but it can also cause problems
with overall health. If you can’t get these important nutrients your body needs
for healthy functioning, they will pass through your system unused.
Trouble with digestive enzymes? Some questions to ask:
- Has your digestion felt “off” or abnormal?
- Do you have gas, bloating and/or reflux every day?
- Do you experience frequent diarrhea or constipation?
- Have you noticed changes in the color and/or texture of your stools?
- Has milk or pasta become a “trigger” food for digestive symptoms?
If you’re experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, you could have a digestive enzyme
imbalance. Knowing more about what these important enzymes do, can make it easier
to ensure your body is getting enough of them for proper digestion.
Digestive enzymes help your body absorb nutrients
Whether you eat a piece of bread, an apple, or a bowl of ice cream, your body has
to turn that food into individual nutrients that it can take in and use for energy.
During this digestive process, different digestive enzymes are produced to target
specific molecules in foods.
For example, the enzyme lactase is responsible for breaking down the milk sugar
lactose. If you are not making enough of this enzyme (or not making it at all),
you may be unable to digest milk or dairy products. This is what is commonly referred
to as lactose intolerance.
Your body makes plenty of other digestive enzymes and each one works on a certain
type of nutrient molecule. These include:
- Amylase: splits starches and sugars into glucose, a type of sugar
we can absorb.
- Protease: breaks down proteins into amino acids.
- Lipase: breaks down fats into absorbable components.
- Maltase: converts certain sugars in grains into glucose.
- Dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV): breaks down casein and gluten.
The digestive process begins as soon as you put something in your mouth: your saliva
contains amylase and other digestive enzymes that break down starch and other simple
carbohydrates. Think about a sweet treat that seems to “melt in your mouth” — that
sensation is partially due to the action of amylase!
When food enters the stomach, your stomach acid, hydrochloric acid (HCL), and the
digestive enzyme pepsin, continue breaking down foods, especially proteins. The
big wave of digestive enzyme action takes place in the small intestine. You can’t
notice it, but when you start eating, certain hormones send a signal to the pancreas
to produce enzymes.
As food enters the small intestine, an enzyme-packed pancreatic juice is released
to help finish the job of freeing up nutrient molecules. Nutrients are then absorbed
through the walls of your small intestine, and into the blood stream.
Food that is not digested typically moves on to the large intestine where it eventually
forms a stool and is excreted. For example, the human body does not produce an enzyme
that can digest plant cell walls. Undigested plant material — known better as fiber
— always ends up in the large intestine.
How to support digestive enzyme production
The easiest ways to check for problems with your digestive enzymes is to
examine your stools. Do you often see light-colored, foul smelling, loose
and/or floating stools, or greenish stools? These are signs that your body is not
producing enough digestive enzymes. (For example, floating stools may indicate the
presence of undigested fats.)
There are a number of hidden factors that can lead to inadequacies in digestive
- Leaky gut
- Inflammation from food sensitivities (i.e., gluten)
- Chronic stress
If you have suspicions about your body ability’s to produce enzymes, we recommend
working with a functional medicine practitioner or naturopathic doctor. This process
can help you understand which specific enzymes are being affected, as well as your
options for supporting enzyme production or handling any enzyme deficiency or malabsorption
On your own, you can try one of these natural remedies:
1. Replace specific enzymes. If you know you are
lactose intolerant, try taking lactase in supplement form, and your symptoms of
lactose intolerance may recede.
2. Provide general digestive enzyme supplementation support.
Take a high-quality digestive enzyme with every meal and monitor your results over
a few days. Look for enzyme supplements that contain bromelain, an enzyme found
in pineapple juice and in the pineapple stem, and papain, a powerful digestive enzyme
extracted from the papaya fruit. Your digestive symptoms may resolve and the appearance
of your stools may normalize normal after using enzymes.
3. Get enough magnesium. As an essential nutrient,
the mineral magnesium is considered a “co-enzyme,” because it is necessary for proper
enzyme function within the body. Since most of us don’t get enough magnesium through
diet alone, consider taking a
high-quality magnesium supplement to naturally support the action of your
own digestive enzymes.
Let your digestive enzymes take good care of you
It’s true that digestion is at
the foundation of your health. New research on supplementing with digestive
enzymes shows promising results, ranging from helping with celiac disease to improving
the emotional response, general behavior and gastrointestinal symptoms in children
Paying attention to your digestive enzymes can be an important step towards
resolving nagging digestive symptoms and upgrading your ability to absorb
and use nutrients.
When you start absorbing more of the nutrients in your food, you also might notice
that other health issues — like constant fatigue, or dull and dry skin and hair
— disappear. When the nourishment you take in finally ends up where it’s needed
— it’s clear that gut health = good health!
Grossmann, Kayla. “Digestive Health: 7 Ways to Balanced Enzymes” Radiant Life Blog
Ianiro, Gianluca et al. “Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases.”
Current Drug Metabolism 17.2 (2016): 187–193. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/
Freuman, Tamara D. “Digestive Enzymes: Help or Hype?” US News & World Report. April