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What Exactly Are Digestive Enzymes—And Do You Need Them?

Last updated on April 3, 2020
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We spend a fair amount of time thinking about what we're eating and how it influences our bodies, whether it's chugging a green smoothie in the morning for energy and fiber or sipping on a bone broth in the afternoon to heal our guts. How much, though, do you think about the impact the simple act of eating has on your body?

Here's the deal: Everything you eat, whether it's a cheeseburger or salad, takes your body a certain amount of energy to digest. Since we're all eating three (or more!) times daily, one of the easiest things you can do to kick up your digestive system and massively take the burden off your body's energy resources is to incorporate more digestive enzymes into your life.

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What are digestive enzymes?

"Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down food macromolecules into their smaller building blocks, in order to facilitate their absorption into the body through the gut lining," says digestive health expert Vincent Pedre, M.D. "The body makes a variety of digestive enzymes, from amylase in saliva to proteases in the stomach to lipase in the small intestine." Your digestive enzymes, in essence, break apart your food so you can absorb everything in it, whether it's the protein or vitamin C.

As for that variety, there are three main types of digestive enzymes. They include:

  • Lipase: This enzyme breaks down fats
  • Amylase: This breaks down carbohydrates
  • Proteases and peptidases: These break down proteins
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Within each of these categories, there are also more varieties of enzymes that work to help digest food. One common example is lactase, which breaks down lactose the sugar in milk and milk-based products

When we don't have enough digestive enzymes? That salad you're eating won't be giving you nearly as many benefits as you think—and it's likely putting some wear and tear on your system to boot.

So how do you know if you have enough?

While some people produce enough of their own digestive enzymes naturally, many do not. A lot of us don't have optimal gut health, whether it's due to the food we eat or any gut-harming chemicals we're exposed to, according to Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP. "When you're working on [building a healthy] gut, you pay attention to increasing your digestive enzymes," he says.

"People with more bloating and gas, particularly if over the age of 50, are more likely to be low in stomach acid and be at risk for low production of enzymes," notes Terry Wahls, M.D. "Having food that is incompletely digested in the stool or having loose stool, also suggests a problem exists."

Adding in enzymes will promote the breakdown of food, to increase nutrient availability and absorption, and support gut health and energy levels.* If you are concerned, ask your doctor to order a test called fecal pancreatic elastase to see if your pancreas is producing enough digestive enzymes.

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How can you get your digestive enzymes with supplements?

There are tons of different varieties of digestive enzymes supplements on the market, from all-purpose types to ones that are for specific foods (such as meat, dairy, or vegetables) or issues (such as low stomach acid production). According to Pedre, "It's best to start with comprehensive enzymes that can also have cellulases to help you digest plant-based foods, which are harder to digest.* If you have difficulty digesting proteins, especially red meats, you might need a betaine-HCl supplement with pepsin to support your protein absorption."*

In general, if you're looking for a well-rounded digestive enzyme supplement, look for an "enzyme blend" on the label. This may include any number of digestive enzymes, like the main three (protease, amylase, lipase) plus other more targeted enzymes (like glucoamylase, invertase, and diastase). Take them with meals, as that's when your body needs the enzyme to break down the food.

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What foods have natural digestive enzymes?

Raw vegetables are rich in enzymes, as are fruits like papaya and pineapples, but be sure to eat the center, the tougher part of the pineapple (which many people discard), as that's where the bromelain digestive enzyme is found. Cole also recommends avocados to his patients as a great source of the digestive enzyme lipase. Here's a longer list of the best digestive enzyme foods to keep in mind:

  • Pineapple
  • Papaya
  • Avocado
  • Kefir
  • Miso
  • Kiwi
  • Bananas
  • Honey
  • Kimchi
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Because enzymes are heat-sensitive, incorporating a raw vegetable element into each meal is an easy way to improve your enzyme consumption. Using digestive bitters is also a great way to help improve digestion. Finish your soup with some microgreens, throw some chopped cilantro on top of your stir-fry, or add a few chopped scallions to your burrito bowl and see how your body responds.

Bottom line

It's possible to get digestive enzymes from natural sources and foods. However, if you experience gas, bloating, or digestive issues, a supplement featuring digestive enzymes can promote a happier, healthier gut.*

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.