Digestive enzymes are proteins that help break down the foods you eat so you can use them as energy. Your body produces many different types of enzymes to help digest carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Some important enzymes include:
- Amylase – breaks down carbs in starchy foods like bread, potatoes, or beans into simple sugars.
- Lactase – breaks down lactose, the sugar in milk.
- Protease – breaks down proteins in foods like eggs, meats, or dairy foods into amino acids.
- Lipase – breaks down fats from foods like nuts, oils, or butter into fatty acids.
Most foods have a mix of carbs, protein, and fat. As long as your digestive system is working well, your body knows which enzymes to produce and when to produce them.
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Digestive Enzymes Benefits
Digestion happens in stages throughout your entire digestive tract. Most parts of your digestive tract produce enzymes.
Your salivary glands make amylase, so starchy and sugary foods begin to breakdown in your mouth. Your stomach and pancreas make protease and lipase enzymes for protein and fat digestion. Your small intestine produces various enzymes, including lactase, which breaks down lactose.
Some health conditions that affect your stomach, pancreas, or small intestine might cause a digestive enzyme deficiency. Also, it can be common to have changes in the gene that produces lactase as you age, so you may lose the ability to digest lactose over time. Regardless, an enzyme deficiency can cause problems digesting certain types of foods.
If your body doesn’t make enough enzymes, you may benefit from taking digestive enzyme supplements with your meals. These supplements can help you to break down foods easier, and, in doing so, reduce digestive symptoms like:
- Belly pain
Another potential benefit of digestive enzymes is that they might help you absorb more nutrients from the foods you eat.
Sometimes it’s easy to know you have an enzyme deficiency — like with lactose intolerance. This condition causes symptoms only after eating dairy foods when you don’t make enough lactase. Taking a lactase supplement usually helps because it digests lactose for you, so you’ll have fewer (or no) digestive symptoms.
“You may need an evaluation by your doctor to determine if you have a health condition affecting the stomach, pancreas, or small intestine to explain your symptoms,” says Dr. Dhiraj Yadav, UPMC pancreatologist. “Further investigation may help to determine the type and amount of digestive enzymes you need to feel better. For example, in chronic pancreatitis, a chronic inflammatory condition of the pancreas, higher doses of enzymes are needed to digest food, especially fats.”
If your symptoms are ongoing or are hard to pinpoint, it’s important to talk to your doctor. You may be taking the wrong digestive enzyme supplement, need a different dose of enzyme supplements, or your symptoms might be from something other than an enzyme deficiency.
When to Use Caution
Many gastrointestinal (GI) conditions cause symptoms that mimic those of an enzyme deficiency. Diseases such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can cause similar digestive symptoms. But these conditions won’t improve with digestive enzyme supplements and require alternative treatments.
Other digestive concerns might call for digestive enzyme supplements, but instead of an over-the-counter product, you may need prescription pancreatic enzymes. In some cases, taking over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements may delay care and worsen a more serious condition.
Although considered safe, digestive enzyme supplements may have some side effects. The most reported side effects are:
- Stomach pain
Another potential digestive supplement side effect is an allergic reaction to the supplement itself, or to another ingredient in the mix. For example, digestive enzyme supplements may interact with some diabetes medicines or blood thinners. It’s always a good idea to discuss these or any other supplements with your health care provider.
Digestive Enzymes in Foods
Some of the active ingredients in digestive enzyme supplements come from foods like papaya and pineapple. Both include natural compounds that can break down proteins. Eating these fruits can help your digestion the same way as papain (from papaya) and bromelain (from pineapple) work within digestive enzyme supplements.
In fact, many raw fruits, vegetables, as well as fermented foods, can provide natural enzymes. Some other good sources include:
If you have digestive issues, digestive enzymes might help. Try working on your diet too. Add more of these natural sources of digestive enzymes, and cut back on greasy, fatty, or hard-to-digest foods. If your condition doesn’t improve, talk to your doctor about your symptoms.
Current Drug Metabolism. Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases. LINK
Medline Plus. LCT gene. LINK
Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Health Benefits of Fermented Foods. LINK
European Journal of Nutrition. The Nutritional and Health Attributes of Kiwifruit: A Review. LINK
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Amylolytic Activity in Fruits: Comparison of Different Substrates and Methods Using Banana as Model.LINK
Frontiers in Plant Science. Primary Metabolism in Avocado Fruit. LINK
Journal of Pharmaceutical Education and Research. Enzymes as Drugs: An Overview. LINK
About Digestive Disorders
The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.