In this guide, we will answer all of your most common questions about digestive enzymes:
- What are digestive enzymes, what do they do, and where do they come from?
- Digestive enzymes vs probiotics: what’s the difference?
- What do digestive enzymes help with?
- Which enzyme should you take to break down carbs, fats, proteins, etc.?
- What’s the best time to take digestive enzymes and probiotics?
- Do you need an enzyme supplement?
Let’s get started …
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes help break down food in your mouth and gut so nutrients are released and can be absorbed across the intestinal barrier into the bloodstream.
Therefore, one of the main things digestive enzymes do is to increase the bioavailability of nutrients. In other words, they help your body digest certain foods better.
Where Do Digestive Enzymes Come From?
Our bodies make some types of digestive enzymes. They’re produced in your saliva and as exocrine secretions from the pancreas when you consume food.
Digestive enzyme supplements come from three different sources: animals, plants and microbes.
These include pancreatin, pepsin, trypsin and chymotrypsin. Pancreatin includes many of the enzymes necessary for digestion of proteins, fats and carbohydrates (proteases to break down proteins into amino acids; amylase to break down complex carbohydrate molecules into manageable sugars; and lipase to help break down fats).
Plant-sourced enzymes include bromelain (from pineapple), papain (from papaya), and gluten-specific proteases, which help break down proteins.
These enzymes come from fungi and bacterial sources and can be used by vegetarians and vegans instead of animal-based enzymes. Common enzymes in this group include amylase, glucoamylase, proteases, lipase and multiple types of saccharidases including lactase (to digest lactose), alphagalactosidase (for digesting beans, legumes and cruciferous vegetables) and cellulase (to help digest cellulose in plants).
Are Digestive Enzymes the Same As Probiotics?
Digestive enzymes and probiotics can both help you improve digestion but they’re not the same. Probiotics are living microorganisms that may provide certain health benefits when ingested while digestive enzymes are non-living molecules that help you digest specific foods better.
Your body produces enzymes but does not produce probiotics, so they must be consumed through the diet or supplemented.
Who Should Take a Digestive Enzyme Supplement?
First, it’s important to understand that an enzyme will only help improve digestion of a food if it’s the right type of enzyme for the right type of food.
Second, digestive enzymes will also only help improve digestive symptoms if those symptoms are related to poor digestion of particular nutrients or enzyme deficiency.
What Causes Digestive Enzyme Deficiencies?
There are many reasons why our bodies often don’t make enough digestive enzymes. One of the main reasons is poor exocrine pancreatic function. The causes of Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) are quite diverse and include:
- Problems with the endocrine part of the pancreas such as insulin dysregulation from diet high in refined carbohydrates and diabetes
- Gall stones that block the bile duct and reduce/halt the flow of pancreatic juices (biliary stasis)
- Poor function of the Sphincter of Oddi
- Alcohol abuse
- Micronutrient deficiency
- Protein deficiency
- Diets high in refined carbohydrates causing hypoglycemia, insulin resistance and diabetes
- High calorie intake
- Too little or too much exercise
Other factors that also impact digestive enzyme output are:
- Consuming foods or drinks that promote intestinal inflammation including coffee, alcohol, sugar, and highly processed foods
- Individual food sensitivities like gluten, dairy, corn, soy etc.
- Chronic GI infection or inflammation
- Repeated antibiotic exposure, which affects gut microbiota, digestive and liver health
- Physical, emotional or psychological stress
Symptoms of Digestive Enzyme Insufficiency
Symptoms of digestive enzyme insufficiency usually appear in the gut and may include:
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Irritable bowel type symptoms
- Gut microbiota dysbiosis
- Undigested food in the stools
- Stools that float (steatorrhea)
- Feeling full after only a few mouthfuls
- Food allergies and intolerances
And for some folks, the lack of enzymes can become a chronic insufficiency that may lead to obesity, allergies and poor immune function, depression and anxiety, premenstrual syndrome, fatigue, autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Types of Digestive Enzymes and Benefits of Each
Different types of enzymes have different benefits. Here are some of the most common ones:
TYPE / SOURCE
|Lipases||Lipase / humans, plants and microbes|
Essential for digestion of fats.
|Proteases||Gluten proteases / microbes|
Digest gluten and casein.
|Alkali proteases / microbes|
Digest proteins with pH 4.0-11.
|Acid proteases / microbes|
Digest proteins within pH 2.0-6.0.
|Bromelain / pineapples|
|Carbohydrases||Amylase / humans and microbes|
Digest starch and glycogen-specific enzymes and gluten.
|Amyloglucosidase / plants and microbes|
Digest amylase disaccharides into monosaccharides. Works best with amylase.
|Lactase / humans (babies), plants and microbes|
Digest the milk sugar lactose.
|Alpha galactosidase / microbes|
Digest raffinose, stachyose and verbascose in legumes, whole grains and some vegetables.
|Invertase / humans, plants and microbes|
Digest sucrose and maltose.
|Fibrolytic Enzymes||Phytase / plants and microbes|
Digest phytic acid from nuts, seeds, and grains.
|Cellulase / plants and microbes|
Digest cellulose, a plant fibre found in fruit and vegetables.
What to Expect When Taking Digestive Enzymes and/or Probiotics
When introducing new bacteria and/or an enzyme supplement into your system, it’s common to experience a brief increase in GI activity like gas, bloating, etc. This normally lasts 1-2 weeks max and is your body’s way of acclimating to a shift in the balance of bacteria in your microbiome. If symptoms persist past this point, it’s probably a good idea to stop.
After a couple weeks, you should notice less of these types of symptoms, as long as you’re taking the supplements at the right times. Which leads to our next topic …
When Is the Best Time to Take Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics?
It’s best to take digestive enzymes and probiotics either right before or with a meal to maximize their time of being in contact with food. Try taking them before or with your largest meal or two of the day to start, and then before/with other meals as-needed.
You should not take probiotic or enzyme supplements first thing in the morning or on an empty stomach because you will likely experience an increase in gas and bloating (note: per the section above, it’s normal to have some of these symptoms even if you take the supplements with food for the first couple weeks). Give your body time to adjust!
Do You Need Probiotics, Digestive Enzymes, or Both?
If you’re having gut issues, the first thing you should do is go visit a licensed healthcare provider who can help you determine if you have an enzyme deficiency. We also recommend scheduling an appointment with an allergist to see which foods, if any, you may be having adverse reactions to.
There does appear to be some benefit to taking a combination of probiotics, prebiotics, and digestive enzymes (this is called a synbiotic).
While digestive enzymes will help you break down food and absorb its nutrients, the probiotics will create a natural protective layer of bacteria and the prebiotic fiber will help “feed” the good bacteria.
What to Look for In a Digestive Enzyme / Probiotic / Synbiotic Supplement
Our criteria is admittedly more stringent than others but here’s the checklist we recommend using:
- Formulated by a doctor or credentialed healthcare expert.
- Contains multiple strains of probiotics and enzymes at safe, efficacious doses.
- Ingredients sourced from North America or Europe.
- Delayed release capsule or spore-forming probiotics used to ensure most probiotics reach your small intestine.
- Third party tested for pathogens and other contaminants and post-production testing done on each batch to ensure you’re getting what it says on the label.
About Our Probiotic / Digestive Enzyme Supplement, DIGEST
If you’re considering a supplement, here’s some more information about our product, Digest, and what sets it apart from other digestive health supplements: