Digestive Enzymes are a topic that I am VERY interested in. Living with IBS and ulcers has taught me that if your body is not functioning properly, most of the time it's because you are not giving it what it need. Enter digestive enzymes. I have been using enzymes on and off now for over 6 years to get my bowels under control and it has really made a difference from my day to day. Let's learn about digestive enzymes!
What are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are substances secreted by the salivary glands1 and cells lining the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine to aid in the digestion of food. They do this by splitting the large, complex molecules that make up proteins, carbohydrates, and fats (macronutrients) into smaller ones, allowing the nutrients from these foods to be easily absorbed into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body.
Deficiencies in digestive enzymes are associated with a variety of health conditions, especially those that affect the pancreas as it secretes several key enzymes. Often these can be addressed with dietary changes, such as restricting certain foods or adding those with naturally occurring digestive enzymes, or by taking prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) enzyme supplements.
Who might benefit from taking digestive enzyme supplements?
Diseases of the stomach and small intestine can reduce the number of enzymes produced by them, says Dr. Berry, so people with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, or low stomach acid might find digestive enzyme supplements helpful. Same goes for people who have chronic pancreatitis, which can cause a deficiency of pancreatic enzymes. Having your gallbladder removed can also make it so that there aren’t enough enzymes to break down fat properly, making supplementation a necessary measure to reduce digestive drama.
But if you don’t have a definite enzyme deficiency (you can find out for sure by having your poop tested), or your symptoms are more of a nuisance than severe, it might be easier on your wallet to simply remove any foods from your diet that are causing digestive distress in the first place. "For most people, removing sugars, grains, liquid dairy, and industrial seed oils from the diet can dramatically improve the digestive issues many might try to treat with a supplement," says Dr. Berry.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
Each of the many different digestive enzymes targets a specific nutrient, splitting it up into a form that can eventually be absorbed. The most significant digestive enzymes are:
Amylase is essential for the digestion of carbohydrates. It breaks down starches into sugars. Amylase is secreted by both the salivary glands and pancreas. The measurement of amylase levels in the blood is sometimes used as an aid in diagnosing various pancreas or other digestive tract diseases.
High levels of amylase in the blood may indicate a blocked or injured duct of the pancreas, pancreatic cancer, or acute pancreatitis, a sudden inflammation of the pancreas.2 Low levels may indicate chronic pancreatitis (ongoing inflammation of the pancreas) or liver disease.
Maltase is secreted by the small intestine and is responsible for breaking down maltose (malt sugar) into glucose (simple sugar) that the body uses for energy. During digestion starch is partially transformed into maltose by amylases. The maltase then converts maltose into glucose that is either used immediately by the body or stored in the liver as glycogen for future use.
Lactase (also called lactase-phlorizin hydrolase) is a type of enzyme that breaks down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products, into the simple sugars glucose and galactose. Lactase is produced by cells known as enterocytes that line the intestinal tract. Lactose that is not absorbed undergoes fermentation by bacteria and can result in gas and intestinal upset.3
Lipase is responsible for the breakdown of fats into fatty acids and glycerol (simple sugar alcohol). It's produced in small amounts by your mouth and stomach, and in larger amounts by your pancreas.
Also called peptidases, proteolytic enzymes, or proteinases, these digestive enzymes break down proteins into amino acids. In addition, they play a role in numerous body processes, including cell division, blood clotting, and immune function.4
- Pepsin: Secreted by the stomach to break down proteins into peptides, or smaller groupings of amino acids, that are either absorbed or broken down further in the small intestine
- Trypsin: Forms when an enzyme secreted by the pancreas is activated by an enzyme in the small intestine. Trypsin then activates additional pancreatic enzymes, such as carboxypeptidase and chymotrypsin, to assist in breaking down peptides.
- Chymotrypsin: Breaks down peptides into free amino acids that can be absorbed by the intestinal wall
- Carboxypeptidase A: Secreted by the pancreas to split peptides into individual amino acids
- Carboxypeptidase B: Secreted by the pancreas, it breaks down basic amino acids
Sucrase is secreted by the small intestine where it breaks down sucrose into fructose and glucose, simpler sugars that the body can absorb. Sucrase is found along the intestinal villi, tiny hair-like projections that line the intestine and shuttle nutrients into the bloodstream.
There are a variety of health conditions that can interfere with the secretion of sufficient amounts of digestive enzymes for full digestion of foods. Some are inherited genetic conditions while others develop over time.
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose due to insufficient production of lactase by the small intestine. It is characterized by symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and gas that result from consuming milk and other dairy products.3
There are several forms of lactose intolerance:
- Congenital lactase deficiency (also called congenital alactasia) is a rare inherited form of lactose intolerance in which infants are unable to break down lactose in breast milk or formula and have severe diarrhea if they aren't given a lactose-free alternative. Congenital lactase deficiency is caused by mutations in the LCT gene that provides instructions for making the lactase enzyme.5
- Lactase nonpersistence is a common type of adult-onset lactose intolerance affecting around 65% of adults. It is caused by decreased expression (activity) of the LCT gene. Symptoms typically begin 30 minutes to 2 hours after ingesting dairy.3 Most people with lactase nonpersistence retain some lactase activity and can continue to include some lactose in their diets, such as in the form of cheese or yogurt that tend to be tolerated better than fresh milk.
- Secondary lactose intolerance develops when lactase production is reduced because of diseases that can cause damage the small intestine, such as celiac disease or Crohn's disease, or from other illnesses or injuries that impact the intestinal wall.
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency
The pancreas produces the key digestive enzymes of amylase, protease, and lipase. People with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) have a deficiency of these enzymes and so are unable to digest food properly, especially fats.
The health conditions that affect the pancreas and are associated with EPI are:
- Chronic pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas that can permanently damage the organ over time
- Cystic fibrosis, an inherited genetic condition that causes severe damage to the lungs and digestive system, including the pancreas6
- Pancreatic cancer
Plant-Based Foods with Natural Digestive Enzymes
When looking for that perfect enzyme supplement, you may notice almost all of them source their enzymes from bromelain, which comes from … you guessed it … pineapples! Specifically, bromelain is part of the protease enzyme group, which, as we learned, “break down protein into its building blocks, including amino acids.” This not only helps with overall digestion, but protease also helps the body absorb protein.
It helps that pineapple is a friggin delicious plant-based food as well! Try a few of these bromelain-rich recipes: Pina Colada Protein Smoothie, Sweet Pineapple Tempeh Stir Fry, Carrot and Pineapple Salad With Curry Sauce, Basil Pineapple Ginger Smoothie, or these Pineapple Scones.
Yes! Lovely, creamy, delicious, healthy fat-filled avocados are also a wonderful source of natural digestive enzymes. In particular, avocadoes contain lipase, which makes sense as they are so rich in healthy fats such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and saturated fat. Mentioned earlier, lipase “helps digest fat molecules into smaller molecules, such as fatty acids and glycerol, which are easier for the body to absorb.”
Outside of the traditional guacamole and “stuffed” avocado recipes, this dense fruit is also a truly wonderful vegan alternative for smoothies and creamy desserts such as this Matcha Avocado Smoothie, this Key Lime Tart, this Chocolate Banana Avocado Pudding, this Avocado Goji Pudding, or this Pistachio Avocado Ice Cream.
Taking a moment from the fruit, let’s marvel at the wonderful enzyme-filled miso! Made from the fermenting of “soybeans with salt and koji,” it turns out this wonderful Japanese ingredient is not only gut boosting but is also rich in a “variety of digestive enzymes, including lactases, lipases, proteases, and amylases.”
Try some of these flavor-filled miso-rich recipes: Peanut Butter and Miso Roasted Eggplant, Tofu Sheet Pan Meal With “Cheezy” Miso Tahini Sauce, Miso Cilantro Edamame Dip, Fresh Rainbow Rolls With Miso Peanut Sauce, or this Macrobiotic Miso Bowl.
Another tropical fruit makes the list for its digestive enzyme-rich content! Mangos contain the “digestive enzyme amylase,” which we learned earlier are a “group of enzymes that break down carbs from starch … into sugars like glucose and maltose.” Plus, the riper the mango, the more active those digestive enzymes will be!
Even though it’s still winter, it doesn’t mean you can’t get your tropical recipes on! Try a few of these mango-rich meals: Mango Sticky Rice, Quinoa Mango Kheer, Mango Cabbage Salsa, Guacamole with Mango, Mango Cherry Popsicles, or these Quinoa and Red Bean Tacos With Mango Salsa.
Seems like ginger is simply good for your body no matter what you’re looking to do. Treat nausea, yep! Kick a cold, yep! Boost your gut bacteria, yep! Plus, ginger also contains a protease digestive enzyme called zingibain. This lovely digestive enzyme has been shown to help food move a bit faster through the digestive tract, reducing the chance of excessive gas, bloating, and indigestion.
Plus, most of us think about ginger as one of those savory spices for your sautees, but ginger is actually a wonderful spicey ingredient for sweet treats such as these Gingerbread Sticky Buns, this Gluten-Free Ginger Molasses Cookie Skillet, this Frosted Gingerbread Baked Oatmeal, this Golden Milk Frappuccino, or this Raw Turmeric Ginger Smoothie.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day.
For more on digestive enzymes, click the articles below!