Why Enzymes are Important
Most of us eat on the assumption that what goes into our mouth will end up in our bodies. We break it down into nutrients, and then absorb them to use for all the things we need. Otherwise, what’s the point of eating in the first place?
Ideally, that’s the way it works. But unfortunately, a lot can go wrong between the eating and the getting part of this process. Problems like gut dysbiosis can wreak havoc this whole system and prevent key nutrients from being absorbed.
Enzymes are proteins that make chemical reactions (like digestion) possible. They're primarily made in the pancreas, although there are exceptions. The enzymes important for human digestion break down protein, fat, and carbohydrates so you can absorb and use them.
Anyone with lactose intolerance knows the power of enzymes to digest food: it’s the difference between taking Lactaid with your ice cream and skipping it. Lactaid contains lactase, an enzyme that helps you digest lactose (the sugar in dairy). With the lactase, everything is fine; without it, not so much.
Another example is the popular pill Beano, which contains an enzyme that humans don’t produce, and reduces the gas production associated with eating beans.
These two examples happen to match up well to specific foods, but there are plenty of other enzymes that work more generally on protein, fat, or carbohydrates. And if these enzymes aren’t working right – for example, if we’re not making enough of them – digestion takes a very steep and uncomfortable nosedive. It's like having lactose in everything you eat, but with no Lactaid around to ease the pain.
This is most obvious in the case of people with certain diseases that impair pancreatic function: the pancreas is where most digestive enzymes are made, so if anything goes wrong, enzyme trouble isn't far off. This review covers how diseases like pancreatitis, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, or Celiac disease (to name a few) can reduce the normal production of digestive enzymes in the pancreas. Symptoms include diarrhea, unexplained and unwanted weight loss, and fat in the stool (steatorrhea).
The authors recommend that if someone with one of these diseases has any or all of the symptoms of pancreatic dysfunction, supplemental digestive enzymes might be helpful. The enzymes help improve nutrient absorption, especially of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K.
Enzymes don’t just have to be for people with serious diseases, though. The association between Celiac disease and enzyme dysfunction already gives us a clue that people recovering from a gluten sensitivity might find enzymes a helpful tool for healing. But some holistic and functional practitioners go even further and recommend them to anyone with leaky gut problems, or people who regularly get that feeling of food sitting like a brick in their stomach, just uncomfortably over-full with nowhere to go (you can get a good take on this here). A lot of people have also used them very successfully as general digestive support when they try to transition from one diet to another – for example, if they suddenly start eating a lot more raw fruits and vegetables and find that they’re struggling with gas or bloating in the process.
If this sounds like you, a digestive enzyme supplement might be worth a try. They’re dirt cheap, they’re very safe, and the worst that can happen is nothing at all.
What to Know about Enzyme Supplements
With any supplement, it’s important to be very picky about what you decide to take. Even with something as safe as digestive enzymes, trying to heal your body with a low-quality product just isn’t productive. Here’s what to look for to find a good brand:
- Enzyme content measured in USP (United States Pharmacopeia) or FCC (Food Chemical Codex) units, not just milligrams. Each enzyme has a different unit under these systems (for example, LacU for Lactase Units), but here’s a shortcut: look for an acronym, not a number of milligrams. These units are a much more accurate measure of potency, and a sign that the manufacturer is really taking care to ensure a high-quality product.
- Enteric coating. Enzymes won’t do you any good at all if they’re dissolved in your stomach, so they need a special coating to get them through the stomach acid unscathed. This is called an enteric coating. Some people argue that you don’t need to get enteric-coated enzymes because the stomach is only acidic enough to destroy the enzymes right around a meal. But guess when the most effective time to take the enzymes is? Right around a meal! So yes, it really is worth the money to pay for the enteric coating.
- Fillers and additives. Take a glance through the ingredients list. Some fillers are pretty harmless – for example, if you get cellulose or another kind of fiber in the capsule, it’s really not a big deal. But sometimes the pills contain things like dairy or cornstarch, so if you have a sensitivity, look out.
You’ll also have a choice between several different types of enzymes. You can pick and choose which nutrients you need help digesting (protein, fat, or carbs), or take a combination product that does all three. You can also get enzymes derived from several different sources:
- Plant enzymes, most famously papain from papayas. These are fine if you can get them in an enteric coating.
- Fungal enzymes. If you can’t get anything enteric coated, these are the best for surviving the acidic environment of the stomach.
- Animal enzymes. These are often hard to find without a prescription, and fragile without an enteric coating.
Not Everyone Needs Enzymes
Probably the majority of people can make their own just fine, no outside help required. After all, that’s how we made it happen for centuries! But as “unnatural” as it might be to take enzymes in pill form, the point is really whether it helps or not. If it helps you, that’s the most important consideration – after all, we do plenty of “unnatural” things every day (like reading these words on your computer, for example). For people whose digestion isn’t quite where they’d like it to be, digestive enzymes can be a safe and quick way to get things moving along more smoothly.