What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Enzymes are the catalysts to a huge number of functions in the human body. Digestive enzymes work in a similar way, catalyzing the breakdown of larger particles into smaller pieces. Sometimes the enzymes sound like the foods
they break down:
- Lipases break down fat into lipids.
- Proteases break down proteins into amino acids.
- Cellulases break down cellulose, a type of fibrous carbohydrate.
- Lactase breaks down lactose, the sugar found in dairy products.
They don't all follow this pattern — for example, amylases are another main category of enzymes that breaks down carbohydrates — but it's a helpful way to remember enzyme functions since these cover the major categories of enzymes.
Where Are Digestive Enzymes Located?
Digestive enzymes live along various sections of your digestive system. Some, like amylase, live in the saliva in your mouth.
You may have done an experiment with a saltine cracker in school as a kid: You chew up a saltine cracker for one minute, and over the course of that minute, the salty, savory cracker becomes a mushy, sweet blob. That's actually because of the action of both amylase and another enzyme called ptyalin (2
). Both of these break down carbohydrates into their smallest sugar molecules.
There's also an enzyme in your mouth called bromelain. Bromelain helps break down the proteins in meat. It's even included in some commercially sold meat tenderizers to help soften tough cuts. Bromelain is found in nature in pineapple fruit. So eating pineapple and meat side by side may help you digest your meat more optimally.
Other digestive enzymes live in your stomach or small intestine, or are secreted from your pancreas as you digest your food. In the stomach in particular, these enzymes assist and are assisted by your stomach acid. Hydrochloric acid (HCl) is present in the stomach and is also meant to help break down foods.
If you're having digestive issues, it might not be easy to pinpoint exactly where in the digestive tract things are going wrong. This is true even if you're experiencing symptoms in a particular region, like acid reflux or heartburn in the upper digestive tract, or gas or bloating in the lower digestive tract. The best digestive enzyme supplements cover all your bases by including enzymes across categories and across bodily regions.
Why Take Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are a natural feature along your digestive tract, so you might be asking yourself why you'd need to take them as a supplement. Certain digestive troubles
or broader health issues may result when the food you eat isn't digested or absorbed properly.
Adding a little bit of digestive support might be in order from time to time, or it might be helpful if you have certain health conditions like Celiac disease or lactose intolerance. In these cases, enzymes can help break things down (like gluten and lactose) that your body isn’t equipped to handle, likely because you don’t produce the enzyme yourself.
You might notice from time to time that if you eat a meal too quickly, you get gas or bloating. That's because the enzymes in your saliva didn't have a chance to do their work before you swallowed your food and took another bite. The sub-optimally digested food then hit your stomach and made your stomach enzymes and HCl work overtime to try to break down this food.
This process may create heartburn in the upper digestive region, or it may create bloating in the intestines because the stomach enzymes also couldn't quite get the job done before sending the food through.
Now imagine if your HCl levels were compromised or if you were having trouble making a particular enzyme (like lactase, in the case of those who are lactose intolerant). This is where supplements may come in handy.
Some foods are naturally harder to digest than others. Beans, for example, are so notorious for the digestive challenges
they produce that there's a product called Beano to help you move them through without incident. Beano is simply a name brand for alpha-galactosidase, the digestive enzyme that breaks down the starches in beans and legumes that cause problems for some people (3
Enzymes not only help break down foods for easy digestion, they also do it for easy absorption. If your body is having a hard time breaking down food to the point that it's causing you digestive distress, it's likely not taking all the good stuff out of the food and putting it into your system either.
In other words, if you're not properly breaking your food down, you're very likely not optimally absorbing the nutrients in the food. Chronically poor nutrient absorption can lead to nutrient deficiencies that can negatively impact your health (4
If you have a chronic disease that impacts your ability to absorb nutrients (like Crohn's disease) or involves inflammation in your system that could do damage to your intestinal lining (like colitis or irritable bowel syndrome), it might be helpful to supplement with digestive enzymes to give your digestive system a push in the right direction (1
The Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements
Since we've already gone over the broader categories of digestive enzymes as they relate to various food groups, let's talk about the best enzyme formulas. There are a number of brands out there making these combination enzyme products, and some are better than others.
When you're shopping for digestive enzymes, it's really important to read your labels to understand what's in the bottle. You want to make sure the capsules don't contain unnecessary fillers or extra unhealthy ingredients like starches, soy lecithin, or other irrelevant ingredients.
Good brands have clear labels on their products and contain a variety of enzymes from each food category. Some enzymes come from plant sources like papain, which comes from papaya and helps digest protein, and the aforementioned bromelain, which comes from pineapple. These are both helpful ingredients to look for in a good digestive enzyme supplement.
Lactase and peptidase are other enzymes that help with digesting dairy by breaking down lactose and casein, respectively. Peptidase also helps digest gluten and may help those with gluten sensitivity if they eat something that isn't gluten-free (5
Importantly, since Americans tend to eat a lot of sugar and carbohydrates, we recommend that any enzyme-based digestive supplement you get includes at least one but ideally multiple digestive enzymes that help break down carbs and sugar. Look for invertase, amylase, and glucoamylase, to name a few.
And the final category is fat digestion. Enzymes that help digest fat, such as lipase, are helpful to include in whichever digestive enzyme supplement you choose.
Vital Digestive Enzymes
contain enzymes from each of the relevant categories and are 100% vegan, organic, and non-GMO. All the ingredients are ethically sourced, dairy-free, and gluten-free.
Support Your Healthy Digestion
Digestive enzymes are an excellent way to support your gut health, but they aren't the only answer. Keeping your stress levels low to avoid digestive problems and maintain low stomach acid, chewing your food well to avoid overtaxing your digestive system, and eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods that support digestive function are all ways to support a healthy digestive system.
Raw food contains natural digestive enzymes, as do fermented foods like kimchi
, kefir, yogurt, and sauerkraut
. By eating these healthy foods and supplementing with a good-quality enzyme, you are doing your best to help support healthy digestion.
Digestive enzymes can be helpful for just about everyone. They break down your food as it moves through your digestive tract, which can aid in nutrient assimilation, and in some cases, help prevent the digestive discomfort that comes with eating certain, hard-to-digest foods.
The best digestive enzymes are comprehensive blends that include at least one type of enzyme for each food group (fat, carbohydrates, protein, and sugar). This way, you have all your nutritional bases covered.
The majority of the research on digestive enzymes uses animal-derived varieties, but there's a growing body of research that focuses on plant- or microbe-derived enzymes, and they're showing a lot of promise when it comes to how these enzymes can help with digestive health (