Have you ever placed a piece of bread in your mouth and noticed that it began to get mushy?
That is the digestive enzyme in your saliva at work, breaking down carbohydrates into simple sugars for easier absorption by the body.
Our saliva is not the only place we have digestive enzymes. They are also found in our liver, intestines, gallbladder, and pancreas. Different enzymes in different organs target and break down specific nutrients.
What are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are responsible for breaking down food. These enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions to break down large food molecules into smaller ones.
The enzymes contain proteases, which digest proteins, and nucleases that digest nucleic acids. The digestive system organs secrete these vital enzymes to turn the nutrients we eat into absorbable substances for our digestive tract.
Digestive enzymes are essential because they are the key players in distributing nutrients through the bloodstream.
Here are a few of them and how they work:
- Amylase – breaks up complex sugars into smaller molecule such as maltose
- Lipase – breaks down complex fats into smaller fatty acids
- Trypsin – breaks down protein into amino acids
- Lactase – breaks down the sugar in milk known as lactose
- Cholecystokinin – a hormone secreted in the small intestine that causes the gallbladder to release bile and the pancreas to release digestive enzymes
- Pepsin – breaks down protein products into smaller peptides
What is digestive enzyme deficiency?
If our body does not produce enough digestive enzymes, it will not digest food well. There are digestive disorders that prevent our body from making enough enzymes, that condition is known as digestive enzyme deficiency.
One of the most common conditions is lactose intolerance. This occurs when our small intestine does not produce enough of the enzyme lactase to break down dairy products, or in other words, lactose.
Lactase breaks down the natural sugar in milk, lactose. So those who have a shortage of this enzyme experience gas, bloating, and other discomforts in their stomach when they eat dairy foods.
With a lack of lactase, the lactose in dairy products goes straight to the colon because there are not enough enzymes working to absorb it into the body.
Enzyme deficiency also causes Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), sometimes called pancreatic insufficiency. With EPI, the pancreas stops releasing enough enzymes to break down food properly to support normal digestion.
What are the symptoms of digestive enzyme deficiency?
Those with more severe deficiencies such as EPI might experience weight loss, mal-nourishment, foul-smelling stools, and bloating.
While digestive enzyme deficiency symptoms can vary, here are the most common ones:
- Abdominal cramps
- Stomach aches
What are the benefits of digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are available in supplement form for those who do not produce enough of them. These enzyme supplements found in pill or chewable tablet form.
These are mainly intended to protect against mal-absorption, which otherwise slows the digestion and leads to uncomfortable symptoms like cramps, flatulence, bloating, and diarrhea.
Supplements may include one or a combination of digestive enzymes and help to treat the following:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Crohn’s disease
- Celiac disease
- Ulcerative colitis
What are the natural sources of digestive enzymes?
There are many fruits, vegetables, and other foods that have natural digestive enzymes. Eating the following can improve your digestion:
Raw honey is rich in digestive enzymes, including disasters, amylases, proteases, and invertases. Invertases break down sucrose (sugar) into maltose and glucose.
Papayas eaten raw and uncooked may ease the symptoms, including bloating, heartburn, and constipation, from digestive disorders such as IBS. Papaya contains papain, which helps digest proteins.
Avocados contain lipase, which digests fat molecules. You don’t need lipase from your diet, but it can ease digestion after a high-fat meal.
The enzymes in mangoes break down carbs into sugars and become more active as the fruit ripens, explaining why they get sweeter with time.
Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage, and digestive enzymes are added during the fermentation process.
Kiwifruit contains a protease called actinidain, which can help aid digestion. Kiwifruits provide relief from constipation and symptoms of constipation-predominant irritable bowel syndrome (IBS-C)
Ginger contains a protease called zingibain thought to aid digestion by helping food move more quickly through the digestive tract. This helps in boosting body’s production of enzymes as well.
Miso is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a type of fungus called koji. Like sauerkraut, this fermentation process adds digestive enzymes, including amylases, proteases, lipases, and lactases.
Kefir is a fermented milk beverage shown to improve lactose digestion due to its many digestive enzymes.
It contains lipases, lactases, and proteases, but other enzymes are also added as the bacteria digest the milk’s natural sugars during fermentation.
What are some digestive enzyme supplements?
Digestive enzyme supplements can either be prescription or bought over the counter.
Prescription enzyme medications contain pancrelipase, which is a mixture of amylase, protease, and lipase. These pills have a special coating to travel through the stomach acid to the small intestine.
The primary prescription enzyme medications in the United States include Creon and Zenpep, or in similar composition in other parts.
Over-the-counter supplements are not FDA-regulated medications, so the main downside is not knowing the amounts of enzymes they contain, and long term side effect, if any.
Here are some popular supplements and their benefits:
Garden of Life Chewables
The convenience of a chewable mixed with 29 powdered Certified USDA Organic fruits and veggies and a blend of powerful digestive enzymes.
Pure Encapsulations Digestive Enzymes Ultra
These capsules are gluten-free and help reduce bloating and promote healthy digestion.
Zenwise Health Digestive Enzymes
These supplements contain pre- and probiotic blends for reduced bloating and improved digestion.
Lactaid Fast Act Chewable
A supplement to ease symptoms for those with lactose intolerance.
VeggieGest contains a powerful enzyme called Alpha Galactosidase for digesting sugar from beans and raw vegetables, as its name suggests. It provides quick relief for digestive discomfort.
How long does it take for digestive enzymes to work?
When it comes to the body’s natural enzymes, the length of time varies by the meal’s macronutrient composition, but it generally takes 6 to 8 hours for the food to pass through the stomach to the small intestine.
The small intestine is where the digestive enzymes begin to work, and from there, the food enters into a large colon for further digestion. This process of moving food through the colon can take up to 36 hours.
When it comes to supplements, it is vital to remember that enzymes are catalysts, which means they need to be taken with food.
In some cases, they need to be taken along with specific foods to function effectively.
Lactase supplements, for instance, need to be taken along with dairy products. Amylase supplements are best taken with legumes and vegetables since their intended purpose is to digest these foods’ complex sugars.
Some digestive supplements are meant to be taken with a meal, while some should be taken before eating.
There is no standard timeline that digestive enzymes take to work, just as there are no standard dosages. It is recommended to take supplements as it is prescribed by a doctor or mentioned on the product label.
Generally, digestive enzymes are taken consistently for two to three weeks, which is how long it can take to notice improvements in digestive symptoms.