With any digestive problem, first and foremost, you need to look at your diet.
Are you eating a substantial amount of processed and sugary foods? If so, it’s advisable to clean up your nutrition and transition to a healthier lifestyle with the right balance of healthy proteins and fats and complex carbohydrates.
Eat plenty of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, both cooked and raw, sufficient amounts of fibre, natural whole foods and grains. Consuming a varied range of herbs and spices is also essential. Staying adequately hydrated and topping up your water levels throughout the day is crucial as well as limiting caffeine and alcohol.
You could also benefit from cutting out any trigger foods that appear to exacerbate any of your digestive symptoms.
Of course, to get a better handle on what the problem is, you would gain the most by seeking the advice of a nutritional therapist, naturopath or functional medicine practitioner. They can carry out the appropriate testing and come up with a treatment plan tailored specifically to your condition and needs.
That said, if you do suffer from wind, bloating, diarrhoea, digestive pain, or acid reflux, then you may not be producing enough digestive enzymes and supplementing could potentially ease your symptoms.
For example, if you consistently see that your abdomen is flatter on waking, but it gradually becomes more distended throughout the day, then your bloating could be food-related. If you notice that it gets worse after eating specific foods like beans, it could be that you are not producing the right digestive enzymes to adequately process the starch they contain, leading to uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
Fat is commonly the hardest-to-digest macronutrient. If you are struggling to digest fats, you may find that your stool is pale and tends to float. There may also be an oily quality to the toilet water and greasy stool remnants after you flush.
If you are lactose intolerant, you won’t have enough of the right digestive enzymes to break down the sugars in milk.
Lack of digestive enzymes inhibits nutrient absorption
It’s increasingly well known that a happy, healthy gut is essential for a robust immune system and the prevention of chronic disease. Along with other gut issues, lack of digestive enzymes can most certainly contribute to the chronic malabsorption of vital nutrients.
This leads to nutrient deficiencies that are detrimental to your overall health and wellbeing, contributing to a lack of energy and many of the illnesses we see today.
What are digestive enzymes?
Dr Edward Howell, a pioneer in enzyme research, called enzymes the “sparks of life” and they are required for almost all of our bodily functions.
We simply cannot survive without these protein molecules which are integral to our cellular, brain, tissue, muscle, bone and organ health. We have both metabolic and digestive enzymes.
We produce digestive enzymes ourselves, and they are crucial for proper digestion and absorption of nutrients. They work with other digestive secretions like stomach acid and bile to help break down larger food molecules from the macronutrients protein, carbohydrate and fat, into smaller, more easily digested pieces.
They do this by facilitating a chemical reaction called hydrolysis, which converts them into a more available form. This enables nutrients to be more readily absorbed into your bloodstream and effectively utilised by your body.
The role of digestive enzymes
Digestive enzymes are produced by different digestive glands throughout the digestive process as follows.
The salivary gland
These produce just enough saliva to moisten each mouthful of food, making it easier to slide down the oesophagus. Your saliva contains enzymes which begin to act the moment you start to chew. It instigates the digestion of any carbohydrates in your food.
Gastric glands in your stomach produce gastric juice which is a mixture of water, hydrochloric acid (HCL) and enzymes. The digestive enzymes secreted here break down proteins.
Once your food leaves your stomach and enters your small intestine, the pancreas releases digestive juices containing enzymes that break down all three energy macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and proteins).
At the same time, digestive enzymes in the cells of your intestinal wall also kick into action to digest carbohydrate, fat and protein fragments.
Here is a list of digestive enzymes and what they break down.
Fats – lipase.
Proteins – bromelain, chymopapain, hyaluronidase, pancreatin, papain, pepsin, plasmin, protease, rennin, trypsin.
Carbohydrates – amylase, diastase, glucoamylase, hemicellulase, invertase, maltase, pancreatin, papain, pectinase, phytase. Lactase breaks down lactose in milk.
High fibre foods – cellulase.
What can interfere with your digestive enzyme production?
Low stomach acid – Hydrochloric acid (HCL) lives in the stomach and is essential for preventing bacterial growth and killing any bacteria that enters your digestive system with food. It is incredibly acidic, being lower than 2 on the PH scale and stronger than vinegar. Your stomach has to secrete mucus to prevent the acid from destroying its cells. Digestive enzymes perform best within healthy HCL levels. If it’s too low, this stage of digestion cannot properly occur, leading to decreased enzyme efficiency while also compromising the rest of the digestive process.
Ageing – As we age, there is a decline in the production of digestive enzymes. By the time you reach your 40s there’s a significant depletion and more so as you reach old age. Not only that, but as we age, our hydrochloric acid also declines. This is troubling, as HCL is vital for healthy digestion, including the production of digestive enzymes.
Medication – Regular use of prescription drugs, including antibiotics and over-the-counter non-steroidal painkillers, can seriously compromise your gut integrity and production of fully functioning digestive enzymes.
Poor diet – As well as producing digestive enzymes ourselves, we can also obtain them from food. If you don’t eat a balanced diet, you won’t be getting adequate amounts of these foods. An unhealthy diet also contributes to poor gut health which, in turn, can impact digestive enzyme production.
Various pathologies – These include liver disease, Crohn’s or Celiac disease, pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, cystic fibrosis, leaky gut, gall bladder removal, chronic stress, toxin build-up, inflammation and food intolerance.
Fever – Enzymes function best at normal body temperature (around 98.6F). If you have a high temperature, it can affect the function of digestive and metabolic enzymes.
Who would benefit from taking digestive enzyme supplements?
If you’re ageing, regularly take medication, have digestive issues including bloating, wind, pain and diarrhoea, or suffer from hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid), then you may benefit from taking a supplement.
One pilot study reduced diarrhoea, cramping and bloating in IBS patients using digestive enzyme supplements while another also improved bloating, flatulence and abdominal pain with a combination supplement of beta-glucan, inositol and digestive enzymes.
Many functional medicine practitioners report successfully using digestive enzymes in patients with a leaky gut as it helps to take some burden off the gastrointestinal tract.
Proteolytic enzymes which digest proteins have also been shown to have anti-inflammatory powers.
Also, if you have any of the pathologies listed above, then you could benefit. In certain instances, your doctor may prescribe prescription-strength enzymes, such as if you suffer from cystic fibrosis or pancreatic dysfunction.
If you have intestinal parasites, digestive enzyme supplementation as part of a comprehensive treatment plan can help to restore your intestinal tract, making it inhospitable to parasites.
For example, papain, an enzyme in papaya, has anti-parasitic properties which may be able to kill intestinal worms.
Always speak to your GP or a registered health professional before taking digestive enzyme supplements.
How to bolster digestive enzymes through diet
Eat plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, preferably organic as they will have grown in less mineral-depleted soil than conventional crops.
Some foods that provide digestive enzymes are avocados, papayas, pineapples, bananas, mangos, sprouts, kiwis, kefir, yogurt, fermented soy products, raw fermented sauerkraut and kimchi, bee pollen and raw honey.
Consuming raw apple cider vinegar before each meal may help to maintain healthy stomach acid levels. Put one tablespoon in a small amount of water and drink it on an empty stomach half-an-hour before eating.
What to look for in a digestive enzyme supplement
If you are vegan or vegetarian, be sure to check the label of any digestive enzyme supplements as many are made using animal enzymes like pancreatin and pepsin.
These don’t survive stomach acid so need an enteric coating to protect them (made using waxes, shellac, and plastics) which many people prefer to avoid.
It also means that the animal enzymes only start to work once they reach the small intestine, bypassing all the other stages of digestion. It’s not always easy to find out where the animal products derived, how they have been treated, and to what contaminants they have been exposed.
These days though, there are many vegan-friendly plant-based options on the market which tend to come from fungal extractions. They are PH stable, don’t require a protective coating and work throughout the entire digestive process, aiding digestion and nutrient absorption.
Like all supplements, it’s essential to ensure you are using a premium-quality digestive enzyme product as they do vary. They tend to work quickly, so if you struggle to digest certain foods and don’t have a response, try another brand and see if that helps.
Ensure that the supplement you choose covers all major enzyme groups (amylase, protease and lipase). If you are sensitive to dairy, find one containing lactase.
Symptoms potentially relating to lack of digestive enzymes are not limited to digestion. You may also experience symptoms including thyroid problems, food cravings, thinning hair, sensitive, dry or dull skin, trouble sleeping, fatigue, brain fog, muscle weakness, mood swings, depression, headaches and PMS.
Without seeking the advice of a healthcare professional, you may not know for sure whether or not these symptoms are related. Still, you could benefit from trying a digestive enzyme supplement.
If you suffer from any of the conditions or symptoms listed in this article, you might also find supplementing helpful.
Always go for a high-quality product and ensure it contains all three enzyme groups – amylase, protease and lipase. If you are vegetarian or vegan, check the ingredients don’t contain any animal enzymes.
Low stomach acid could also be contributing to your symptoms and inhibiting digestive enzyme activity. It naturally declines with age, although anyone can be susceptible. Drinking a tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar 30 minutes before eating can help to increase low hydrochloric acid, but you may prefer to take an HCL supplement.
To be safe, always check with your doctor or chosen health professional before taking digestive enzymes, especially if you have a serious illness, are taking medication or any other supplements.
Written by Rebecca Rychlik-Cunning, Nutritional Therapist and Homeopath. Follow Rebecca on Instagram, Facebook and Medium, @rebeccabitesback.
Consuming raw apple cider vinegar before each meal may help to maintain healthy stomach acid levels.