Digestive Enzymes – A Thorough Breakdown

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Chances are that if you’ve ever been in a supplement store such as GNC or walked through the health market section of a Whole Foods, you’ve seen the large displays of digestive enzymes. Big, bold letters claiming various functions and promising to support digestion and enhance nutrient absorption among other things. You probably think to yourself, “Well, I feel fine when I eat so this probably isn’t something I need”. While you may very well not ‘feel’ that you have issues with your digestive process, this isn’t something to write off. On the other hand, if you’re like me and have off-season bodybuilding or heavy training diet consisting of 4,000+ calories on a daily basis, sometimes the sheer volume of food can leave you feeling a bit heavy and ‘full’, and not in a good way. Regardless of which category you fall into, you’ve arrived at this article for a reason, so let’s dig in and break down what digestive enzymes entail.

Digestive Enzymes: What are they?

In a nutshell, digestive enzymes are potent catalysts in the body that act to speed up specific and life-preserving chemical reactions. In other words, they help break down larger particles into smaller, more easily absorbed particles that the body can use. Starting from the top-down, the duodenum is the first (and shortest) segment in the small intestine that has a crucial role in digestion. Not only are amino acids extracted from proteins, sugars extracted from carbohydrates but fatty acids are extracted from dietary fats.

The macronutrients (and micronutrients) ingested are broken down into particles small enough to be transported through the blood stream and utilized by the various parts of the body. The body has its own system of digestive components, such as the pancreas which produces bile salts and the intestines with enzymes of their own. These enzymes are not just beneficial, but essential for life. Such enzymes that are produced are detailed below:

Intestinal Enzymes:

  • Lactase -> Breaks down lactose, the sugar found in dairy products into glucose.
  • Maltase -> Converts maltose into glucose.
  • Isomaltase -> Converts Isomaltose to glucose.
  • Aminopeptidases -> Break down protein peptides into usable amino acids.
  • Secretin -> Controls secretion of the duodenum (control center)
  • Sucrase -> Converts sucrose to mono and disaccharides.
  • Cholecytokinin -> Aids in the digestion of dietary fats and proteins.

Pancreatic Enzymes:

  • Lipase -> Converts triglycerides to glycerol and fatty acids.
  • Trypsin -> Converts protein into amino acids.
  • Amylase -> Converts carbohydrates into simple sugars.
  • Elastases -> Convert protein to elastin
  • Chymotrypsin -> Converts protein to amino acids.
  • Phospholipase -> Converts phospholipids to fatty acids.
  • Nucleases -> Convert nucleic acid to nucleotides and nucleosides.

Now, while this is good and sounds pretty straight forward, these enzymes cover their role in the larger scope of what is the digestive process. For those not as familiar with what the digestive process consists of, let’s take a little review from physiology class…

Enzyme Release in the Digestive System 101:

  1. When you start to chew food, the salivary amylase is released in the mouth and starts breaking down food into more usable molecules. This is the first encounter with digestive enzymes in the body upon food ingestion.
  2. The stomach is triggered to release acids and enzymes such as gastric amylase by the parietal cells. This starts the process of degrading partially digested food into a semifluid mass (known scientifically as chyme). In this same place, the salivary amylase from the mouth is neutralized by the stomach acids, allowing the next enzyme, gastric amylase to take control.
  3. Chyme is carried from the stomach to the duodenum which is the first portion of the small intestine after about an hours’ time. This causes the release of the hormone secretin when the acidity rises in the stomach.
  4. When the pancreas senses the release of pancretin, it then releases the enzymes such as lipase, amylase, trypsin and nuclease. It also releases hormones, bile and bicarbonate along with the aforementioned enzymes.
  5. Chyme is converted from acid to alkaline by the bicarbonate that has been released from the pancreas. This then allows food to be broken down by enzymes and good bacteria to survive and do their part.

What about Digestive Enzymes in Supplement Form?

Now that we understand the internal enzymes, their functions and what causes their release, we can begin to look at the various enzymes that would be in a standard digestive enzyme product. There will be variations of the levels in each product, depending on the brand and if there is a specific function (protein, carb, keto style emphasis). With a physiology based explanation for the previous, internal enzymes, let’s look at these with a more ‘applied’ description:

Amylase – Helps break down the starches in the daily diet such as rice, bread, oats and other various carbohydrates. This is one of the most commonly supplemented enzymes for carbohydrate digestion puroses.

Cellulase – This enzyme breaks down cellulose which is abundant in the fiber found in plants, fruits, grains and seeds. This is an especially beneficial enzyme for those following a plant based diet, increasing their fiber intake or adding more fresh fruits and veggies. Those that are experiencing gas, bloating and indigestion following those factors would be well suited to look into this.

Hemicellulase – Similar to cellulase, this enzyme also helps breakdown plant fibers. More specifically, this helps with the fiber content of the cell wall and helps the body better utilize the nutrients within.

Alpha-Glucosidase – This is primarily responsible for helping break down legume starches from sources such as beans, chickpeas, etc.

Glucoamylase – This enzyme helps break down sugars that are often overlooked in the daily diet. Such sources that many don’t consider and have issues with include refined grains, white rice and white bread.

Invertase – The chief form of sugars found in many foods is sucrose which as you most likely know, breaks down rapidly. While most would write off the importance of adequate levels of invertase if they eat a healthy diet that has little to no processed sugar, do be aware that whole foods such as beets, peas, peaches, dates, etc. can have sucrose.

Lactase – This is probably one of the most well-known enzymes due to its role of breaking down the sugar found in milk, lactose. For those that are lactose intolerant and experience gas, bloating or other gastric distress, they are deficient in this enzyme that allows them to properly digest lactose.

Lipase – Another well-known enzyme, especially with those that are on a ketogenic or other high fat diet, is responsible for the breakdown and utilization of dietary fats. If you are deficient in this enzyme, indigestion, bloat, fatty stools and heart burn can occur.

Protease – For those reading this article with an active lifestyle, this is probably one of the most beneficial enzymes for you. Protease as the name suggests, helps break down protein. If you’ve ever noticed gas from increasing protein intake in your diet, a protease deficiency is the cause.

Phytase – While often over-looked, phytase helps free up minerals in the phytic acid contained in plants. Foods common in the fitness community such as brown rice have high levels of phytic acid and this makes it especially crucial as it avoids the ‘anti-nutrient’ effect of such foods.

Pectinase – This enzyme breaks down the fiber found in certain fruits such as apples and pears. This is a particularly beneficial fiber as it can help with satiety, however if you are deficient in pectinase, you may also experience bloating and discomfort from such fiber.

Xylanase – Last but not least, xylanase is another important enzyme that helps to break down plant fibers, especially those found in raw vegetables and fruits. It works in conjunction with cellulase/hemicellulase to efficiently break down plant based fibers.

What Are the Benefits of Digestive Enzymes?

There are multiple benefits for using digestive enzymes, and while some may be obvious, there are also benefits that go beyond just digestion. Here is a condense list of research supported benefits that you may experience with the utilization of digestive enzymes:

  • Improved breakdown of hard to digest items such as lactase, casein, gluten, etc.
  • Help alleviate digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome or acid reflux.
  • Promote nutrient absorption and utilization
  • Prevent nutrient deficiency when certain enzymes are lacking.
  • Counteract enzyme inhibitors in foods such as wheat, brown rice, egg whites, seed and beans.
  • Reduce inflammation and promote tissue healing.
  • Promote reduction in exercise-induced muscle soreness.

What To Look For In A Digestive Enzyme Product?

When looking for a digestive enzyme supplement, it can understandably be a little confusing at times. With so many on the shelf and seemingly having the same kinds of ingredients, it can be a little overwhelming which one is best suited for your needs. With that being said, here are some things to be considered when shopping for a digestive enzyme product:

Amounts Fully Disclosed

When looking at different formulas of digestive enzymes, it is important to look and see what all enzymes the particular formula contains. With that obvious statement in place, it is also important to pick one that individually lists the enzymes and the amounts of each in the product. At first glance, a product may contain the same as a cheaper alternative in terms of ingredients, but in reality the lower dosed formula would require 2-3 times the capsule dose to deliver the same amount of enzymes.

Limit The Fillers

While fillers (known as excipients in the industry) are required for making the capsules of the product, try and find one that has the least amount possible. Popular ones include silica, magnesium stearate and rice bran. Less is more as you can quickly build up the amounts you’re ingesting through the day from multiple uses of digestive enzymes or other capsule sources. These fillers can accumulate and lead to digestive issues, so be aware.

Make Sure the Units are Correct

While this may seem like reading a foreign language to you when you look at the units on a digestive enzyme label, it is important to know what to look for. A formula that has ingredient amounts listed in mg (milligrams) is a huge, red flag as it doesn’t give a reading of the actual potency and enzymes contained. There are standard units established from the Food Chemical Codex (FCC) which have been accepted as the standard unit of measure by the Food & Drug Administration. Such include:

Lipase – FCC, LU, FCCLU

Protease – HUT or USP (1 HUT = ~6.5 USP)

Amylase – DU

Cellulase – CU

Invertase – IAU, SU

Lactase – LacU

Maltase – DP

Glucoamylase – AGU

Buy Enzymes For Your Needs

There are a lot of different enzyme formulas on the market, it is important to find one that is full spectrum. A wide range of enzymes in adequate doses provides a great starting point for anyone, and you can of course find some that suite your needs more specifically if needed. Such would be one with higher amounts of lactase for those that are lactose intolerant. Other things to consider are the added beneficial ingredients such as peppermint and ginger which can support digestive comfort. At the end of the day, there is no one-size-fits-all but you can come pretty close right out of the gate with a broad-spectrum product that has true to label claims and doses.

Who Should Use Digestive Enzymes?

Now, while the enzymes and functions they provide within are great, there still may be some confusion as to what specific situations that they may benefit. Honestly, everyone can benefit from utilizing digestive enzymes as superior absorption of the food you’re ingesting is never a bad thing, but in certain cases it may be even more beneficial or even a MUST for proper digestion. A few of the crucial conditions that absolutely warrant digestive enzyme use include:

Hypochlorhydria

This fancy looking word is the scientific way of saying that you suffer from a lack of stomach acid. Without a proper and adequate amount of stomach acid available, normal digestion is near impossible and can lead to a variety of undesirable conditions. Low acid levels can lead to a cascade of issues such as improper breakdown of food leading to the inability of minerals, nutrients and vitamins to be released from food ingested, resulting in possible deficiency.

Age-Related Enzyme Decline

As we age, it is normal for the systems of the body to fatigue and reduce in production and the enzymatic systems are no exception. With age, comes a decline in stomach acid production, transitioning to a more alkaline state. This means that the acid trigger we discussed earlier has a more likely chance of failing and this in turn reduces the pancreatic release of the enzymes required from being released. Digestive enzymes can help make up for this deficit as well.

Digestive System Disorders

Certain disorders of the digestive system can be particularly tough to great, but digestive enzymes fit the bill nicely here. Such conditions as irritable bowel syndrome, malabsorption, constipation and Chrohn’s disease. Digestive enzymes can help make these conditions more manageable by proving the stomach with assistance and making the digestive process more manageable and also reduce stress on the liver, pancreas and small intestine by assisting in the breakdown of food.

Specialty Diets (Bodybuilding, Keto, Etc.)

Now, while these aren’t considered medical conditions, the dietary structure of diets like these can produce a unique challenge compared to what the body is traditionally used to. Diets particularly high in protein, dietary fat or any large volume of food in general are obviously more stressful of a workload for the body to break down. By providing some assistance in the way of digestive enzymes, reduce bloating and enhanced absorption despite high volumes of food can be a huge benefit.

Regarding Athletic/Bodybuilding Performance

Now, for those reading this article, chances are that you’ve arrived here with the interest of making the most progress possible in your ventures as an athlete, bodybuilder, physique competitor, etc. The fact is that if you are training on a regular basis, especially with weight training, you require a higher amount of macronutrients than the normal person.

Large amounts of calories in the form of protein, carbohydrates and dietary fats are ingested in an effort to fuel training, recovery and overall muscle growth. Lack of adequate calories to recover from such training is detrimental and can lead to less than optimal results, but it doesn’t just end with just how much and what you’re eating. Unfortunately, it doesn’t just end at how many grams of protein, carbohydrates and fats you’re eating, but how much of those nutrients you are actually absorbing. By including digestive enzymes in your daily diet, you can optimize the absorption and utilization of these nutrients and fuel advanced recovery and growth, not to mention the aforementioned benefits of possibly reducing inflammation over time.

When all is said and done, there is a wide array of benefits that can be reaped from the use of digestive enzymes. While it may seem overwhelming as to just what they are, which ones serve which function and what you should look for in a product, the effort for getting the right one is well worth the time. Remember, at the end of the day, the food you ingest is only as good as what you can utilize.