You can eat all the healthy food in the world, but it doesn’t mean much if you aren’t digesting it properly.
Enter, digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes help us break down food more easily for better digestion and nutrient intake. Having proper digestion and nutrition is crucial to support a stronger immune system, promote weight loss, smooth skin, our bones, liver, and overall health.
What are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are catalysts that enable molecules to change from one form into another. They’re necessary to break down macronutrients—such as carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—into smaller molecules that our bodies can use for energy and cellular processes.
Our bodies naturally produce digestive enzymes in our salivary glands, stomach, small intestines, and pancreas. However, many environmental and lifestyle factors can deplete our natural enzymatic resources. For that reason, it can be helpful to further support digestion by incorporating enzyme-rich foods or supplements into your diet.
How to Choose Digestive Enzymes
Different types of digestive enzymes are responsible for breaking down different types of food and macronutrients. Here are some of the best digestive enzymes to target in food sources, or as part of a broad spectrum digestive enzyme supplement:
Best Digestive Enzymes for Protein
Protease, bromelain, and papain are among the best enzymes for breaking down protein.
This enzyme helps to break down protein into basic building blocks. This is an enzyme our digestive tract creates naturally. However, we produce less as we age. Hence, why as a dietitian I recommend taking a digestive enzyme that includes this specific enzyme. Protease benefits include promoting overall digestion and perhaps even supporting immunity.
Bromelain is one of the best enzymes for digestion. It can be found in pineapple. Bromelain helps aid in the digestion of proteins found in meat, grains, nuts, and cheese. Research also shows bromelain has anti-inflammatory properties and may also support joint health. Enjoy the benefits of bromelain by eating fresh pineapple after a heavy, protein-rich meal.
Papain helps break down proteins into peptides and amino acids for easier digestion. Papaya is a natural source which explains why it is such a popular fruit for relieving bloating and constipation. Papain also combines well with bromelain.
Interestingly, applying papain topically to the skin is sometimes even used as a natural remedy to relieve bug bites and other surface wounds.
Best Digestive Enzymes for Carbohydrates
Amylase, cellulase, and lactase are among the best enzymes for breaking down carbohydrates.
Amylase is an enzyme our bodies produce to digest starches. This enzyme does a ton of work! It breaks down the fiber and sugars found in fruits, vegetables, and grains into smaller molecules. It is a type of carbohydrase, which is produced in the pancreas and salivary glands to help break down carbohydrates into simple sugars.
Cellulase is another carbohydrase and one of the basic building blocks of the plant kingdom that helps us digest fruits and vegetables. Plant-grazing animals such as cows and sheep actually produce this enzyme naturally in their bodies. However, that isn’t the case for humans. Humans cannot produce cellulase naturally, so we must get it from our diet or supplementation. Fresh fruits and vegetables are good sources of cellulase along with fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, probiotic yogurt, and kombucha.
Lactase is the digestive enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose. Lactose is a sugar that, as you might already know, is abundant in dairy products. Our bodies produce lots of lactase when we are infants and rely on our mother’s milk for nutrition. But, as we get older our lactase production declines. For some individuals, lactase levels become so low as adults that they become lactose-intolerant. This shortage of lactase results in uncomfortable gas and indigestion for lactose-intolerant individuals when eating dairy products.
Best Digestive Enzyme for Fat
The best digestive enzyme for breaking down fats in our diet is lipase.
Lipase breaks down fats into fatty acids and glycerol. It’s the best digestive enzyme for digesting foods like olive oil, butter, cheese and other plant and animal fats. Fatty acids are important because they make up the bulk of our cell membranes and provide energy, among many other benefits.
Do I need a digestive enzyme supplement?
While these enzymes are critical for digestive health, many of us don’t have the correct balance in our bodies.
A deficiency in digestive enzymes can result in improperly digested food in the small intestines and any of the following issues:
- reduced nutrient absorption
- gas and bloating
To support optimal digestion and nutrient absorption consider adding foods with naturally occurring digestive enzymes, or adding a broad spectrum digestive enzyme to your diet.
If you have a history of stomach ulcers, you should consult with your primary-care physician before taking any enzymes.
What to Look for In A Digestive Enzyme Supplement
As a registered dietitian, here’s what I recommend looking for to choose the best digestive enzyme supplement when shopping.
First, I recommend looking for a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme supplement. (These are sometimes also referred to as full-spectrum.) This means the supplement combines multiple enzymes to cover all your needs instead of having to amass a big, expensive collection of single enzymes. Also, because your meals combine different food groups, you can support digestion of all the macronutrients at once. Be sure to look for a combination of the specific enzymes such as protease, amylase, cellulase, lactase, and lipase.
The best digestive enzyme supplements will typically use plant-based enzymes. These enzymes help target gut health with low-to-moderate acidity. They can also help relieve stress on your small intestines, making them inherently more effective than animal-based enzymes.
Then, be wary of purchasing digestive enzymes with a bunch of fillers such as artificial colors and flavors. Instead, look for natural formulas that may include herbs such as ginger, fennel, or peppermint for further digestive support.
As always, a good rule of thumb is to look for enzymes with science-backed evidence supporting its product. A good manufacturer will formulate based on clinical research. You can also check for dietitians or doctors specializing in gut health to back the enzyme you intend to purchase.
When To Take Digestive Enzymes
Ideally, take a digestive enzyme supplement just before a meal. That is when they will be most effective. If that’s too difficult to remember, you can take it in the middle or at the end of a meal as well.
I recommend leaving digestive enzymes out on the table where you eat. That way, you have a visual reminder to take it during the meal.
Finally, it’s best to store your digestive enzymes in a cool, dry place. (Ideally, 77 degrees or cooler.) Limiting exposure to moisture will ensure your supplements stay potent and effective.