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5 Big Health Benefits of Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes in pineapple

Enzymes are vital for energy and life, acting as catalysts to speed up countless chemical reactions in the body. Digestive enzymes play an essential role in converting food into the smaller substances that nourish cells. While the body makes its own digestive enzymes, you can also benefit from eating foods rich in enzymes to give your digestive system and gut health a boost.

Types of Digestive Enzymes

There are three primary types of digestive enzymes categorized based on which macronutrients they break down, and several specialized enzymes that work on a specific food, such as lactase to digest dairy.

  • Amylases: Break down carbohydrates and starchy foods into simple digestible sugars.
  • Lipases: Breaks fats down into fatty acids and glycerol—important compounds that provide energy throughout the body.
  • Proteases: Digest or break down protein into smaller molecules including peptides and amino acids.

Why You May Need More Digestive Enzymes

Since cooking kills enzymes, much of the food we eat is devoid of any beneficial enzymes, which means your body has to provide even more enzymes from its reserves to digest your food.

As we age, our enzyme levels also decrease, which is a factor in why our gut health can deteriorate as we get older. And for various reasons, the body sometimes doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes on its own, leading to an enzyme deficiency.

Enzyme deficiencies can cause a wide range of digestive issues, cripple your ability to absorb nutrients, and even contribute to food intolerances. As a result, people tend to experience 5 main improvements when they increase their intake of digestive enzymes.

1. Eases Digestive Discomfort

At some point in time, everyone has struggled with bloating, belly aches, or constipation. It’s why over-the-counter drug remedies for digestion have soared even though they just cover up the symptoms.

The reality is that many of these digestive issues are caused by a simple enzyme deficiency. This is why supplementing digestive enzymes can provide substantial relief from digestive discomfort.

In one study, people who took a combination of digestive enzymes with soluble fiber experienced a significant reduction in stomach discomfort, gas, and bloating (1).

Another double-blind study found that when people with IBS took a pancreatic lipase supplement, they experienced less cramping, bloating, stomach pain, and fewer loose stools (2).

2. Could Provide Heartburn Relief

Heartburn, or acid reflux, is a common condition people often experience after eating fried, fatty, acidic, or spicy foods and creates an uncomfortable burning or painful sensation.

According to Dr. Jonathan Wright, many cases of heartburn are actually caused by a lack of stomach acid, rather than too much acid like many people believe (3). In fact, over 30 years of research suggests that most acid reflux and heartburn cases are the result of low stomach acid (4).

So, what does this have to do with digestive enzymes? Stomach acid is required for the activation of an important digestive enzyme called pepsin. Without stomach acid and pepsin, your food doesn’t get digested properly.

When this happens, microbes in the stomach and small intestine ferment the undigested food which results in the production of gas (5). This gas then pushes your stomach acid up into the esophagus, causing what most people recognize as heartburn. Getting enough digestive enzymes can help break down food that would otherwise cause heartburn.

3. May Control Inflammation

Research suggests that proteolytic enzymes, a class of protease enzymes that includes bromelain, may protect your body from excess inflammation.

One scientific review written by Dr. Ward Dean, noted that proteolytic enzymes break down harmful pathogenic complexes that would otherwise cause your immune system to needlessly create inflammation (6).

There’s also evidence that proteolytic enzymes can reduce swelling and improve circulation. This can improve your body’s ability to nourish the area with oxygen and nutrients while transporting harmful waste products away.

These anti-inflammatory properties would explain why Italian researchers found that proteolytic enzymes reduce inflammation as effectively as anti-inflammatory drugs (6).

For the full beneficial effect of proteolytic enzymes, they should be taken in between meals so they go beyond digestion, and into the bloodstream.

4. Improves Nutrient Absorption

You could eat the healthiest foods in the world, but if you’re not fully absorbing the nutrients, it won’t do you much good.

There are several factors that determine how well you absorb nutrients from the food you eat. One of these factors, as you might have guessed, is enzymes. If you have an enzyme deficiency, it makes it difficult for your body to absorb nutrients as food passes through the digestive tract (7).

People with lactase deficiencies, for example, cannot fully break down dairy. As a result, they don’t absorb all the nutrients from dairy products. They also experience a considerable amount of digestive discomfort.

So, when people with lactose intolerance want to have some pizza or ice cream, they take a popular remedy that contains the digestive enzyme lactase to help digest and break down dairy so they don’t have any issues.

To get the full benefit from many foods, look for a supplement with a variety of enzyme types so you can optimize your nutrient intake.

5. May Help Avoid Food Intolerances

Undigested food particles caused by enzyme deficiencies don’t just cause you to miss out on the nutrients from food. According to the British Allergy Foundation, these undigested food particles can also lead to food intolerances (8).

When people consume foods they are intolerant to, it can result in symptoms such as…

  • Bloating
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Runny nose (shortly after eating)
  • Fatigue and feeling “under the weather”
  • Stomach aches and digestive discomfort
  • Hives (9)

The good news is, taking digestive enzymes could help provide relief from these symptoms caused by food intolerances.

When Should I Take Digestive Enzymes?

One of the biggest problems with digestive enzyme supplements is that the stomach acid can kill some of them before they get to your intestines.

To counteract this issue, it’s best to take digestive enzymes when pH is at its lowest. Ideally, you should take them a few minutes before breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Also make sure that the enzymes you take come from plant sources. Plant-based enzymes can survive in a much wider range of pH so they’re more likely to make it to your digestive system to provide a benefit.

The Bottom Line

There’s a growing body of evidence that proves the benefits of digestive enzymes are the real deal. Taking digestive enzymes is an effective way to improve your body’s capacity to completely digest food. If you don’t want to take a separate supplement to bolster your digestive enzymes, then look for nutritional supplements which include enzymes.

Having added enzymes in your supplements can ensure you’re getting the maximum benefit from the nutrients, and minimize any digestive discomfort. In doing so, it can result in a wide range of benefits including relief from digestive discomfort, acid reflux, food intolerances and improvements in nutrient absorption.