A Key Factor in Digestion: Digestive Enzymes

Did you know that digestive enzymes are key to helping you break down nutrients from the food you eat so that you can absorb them into your body? Without adequate digestive enzymes, even if you eat well, the nutrients from food may never make it into your system. As we age, we often lose the ability to produce enough of these, which can lead to development of gas, bloating, cramping or diarrhea. Digestive enzymes, which are mostly produced in the pancreas, also help support the pancreas, liver, and the immune system.  

While our bodies require enzymes for many purposes, digestive enzymes are key to breaking food down into smaller parts that our body can use for fuel. Our major food groups are carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, and specific enzymes are needed to break them down. Here are some of the main digestive enzymes and their functions:

  • Proteases break down protein
  • Lipases break down dietary fat Pl
  • Amylases break down carbs (mainly starches)
  • Disaccharides break down sugars
    • Sucrase breaks down sugar
    • Maltase breaks down malt sugar
    • Lactase breaks down lactose in dairy products
  • Cellulase and xylanase break down plant cell walls.

According to Dr. Michael Murray, in his book, The Longevity Matrix, digestive enzymes can help protect against Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).[i] These enzymes can prevent a film, called a biofilm from developing on the intestinal cell wall lining that can promote bacterial overgrowth. When people have digestive complaints, he indicates that they may defer to probiotics, which while in themselves are beneficial to the gut, are of limited value in addressing digestive complaints such as gas and bloating.

A better way of addressing digestive complaints is to consider the addition of supplemental digestive enzymes. Supplements may include a combination of enzymes and there are both plant and animal-derived enzymes which help address and improve digestive symptoms such as bloating, heartburn, and belching. These enzymes are best taken prior to a meal to reduce digestive symptoms. Pineapple contains bromelain and papaya contains papain as examples of plant-based enzymes. Animal-derived enzymes include trypsin and chymotrypsin which come from pigs and cows. The strongest enzymes, however, are vegetarian enzymes which can break down more fat, carbs, and proteins.

Plant-based Enzymes

Proteolytic enzymes are digestive enzymes that help to break down protein, support immune function, and other purposes, but have also become popular to help people manage inflammation and pain. Our digestive system produces these naturally, including 3 main proteolytic enzymes, pepsin, trypsin, and chymotrypsin. Proteolytic enzymes have been used in between meals to be absorbed systemically to help reduce inflammation and pain associated with arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and other conditions. I personally have found them beneficial taking them on a regular basis and taking them more often with arthritis flares.

Proteolytic Enzymes May Help Reduce Arthritis Pain

Interestingly, proteolytic enzymes are thought to be potentially helpful in reducing the risk of some cancers such as colorectal cancer as well as cancer spread, although further studies are needed.[ii] This points to their value in breaking down substances and supporting the immune system.

While digestive enzymes can be a valuable supplement, it’s important to make sure that any digestive enzymes you are considering will not interact with medications, or that you do not have sensitivity to the source of enzyme. For example, I experienced pineapple sensitivity and chose a supplement without bromelain. Also, if you experience any side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, headache, swelling, or nasal congestion, stop taking the enzyme. Some enzymes such as bromelain can interfere with platelet function that helps to clot blood and prevent bleeding.[iii] So, if you are taking an anticoagulant (blood thinner) or going to have surgery, you should discuss this with your pharmacist and physician prior to taking it.

[i] Murray, Michael T. The Longevity Matrix: how to Live Better, Stronger, and Longer. New York: Morgan James Publishing, 2021.

[ii] Herszényi, L., Barabás, L., Hritz, I., István, G., & Tu atilassay, Z. (2014). Impact of proteolytic enzymes in colorectal cancer development and progression. World journal of gastroenterology20(37), 13246–13257. https://doi.org/10.3748/wjg.v20.i37.13246

[iii] Gläser, D., & Hilberg, T. (2006). The influence of bromelain on platelet count and platelet activity in vitro. Platelets17(1), 37–41. https://doi.org/10.1080/09537100500197489

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