What are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are complex proteins produced by the body that break down the food we eat in the stomach and intestines. These enzymes produce chemical reactions that digest food into energy. There are three different types of enzymes that break down each of the three macronutrient types we eat: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Proteases digest protein, amylases digest carbohydrates, and lipases digest fat. All three types of enzymes are important for optimal health.
Who needs digestive enzymes?
As we age, our bodies don’t produce as much of the three types of digestive enzymes. Even by age 50, your body may only be making half the amount of enzymes it once did. When your body doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes, you aren’t able to absorb the nutrients from the food you eat. A person could be eating enough calories for their body size and activity level yet still be malnourished if they cannot absorb the nutrients in the food they eat.
People who have conditions like pancreatitis or pancreatic insufficiency may also not produce enough enzymes. Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, and it can cause pancreatic insufficiency. Having pancreatic insufficiency means that the pancreas isn’t able to produce enough digestive enzymes. People who have cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease also don’t make enough digestive enzymes and often need to take supplements. They make need to take these digestive enzyme supplements daily for their entire life.
If you suffer from indigestion, you also may not be producing enough digestive enzymes. Symptoms of digestive enzyme deficiencies can include bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, an upset stomach, and skin rashes. If you suffer from these symptoms and think you may be deficient, talk to your doctor. He or she can help you figure out which macronutrients you aren’t digesting and which enzymes you may be deficient in.
Being deficient in digestive enzymes can also lower your immune system function. Your digestive system is actually the first line of defense against pathogens that enter your body. Poor digestion can damage the lining of the intestines and weaken its defense against bacteria and viruses, putting your at a greater risk of getting sick.
How do I benefit from taking digestive enzymes?
If you aren’t producing enough digestive enzymes on your own, you can benefit from taking a digestive enzyme supplement. These supplements usually include all three types of enzymes (proteases, amylases, and lipases) to help you better digest protein, carbohydrates, and fat. However, you can also get the particular type of enzyme you’re deficient in if you don’t need all three. There are even specific enzymes available to help you digest gluten or lactose. Digestive enzyme supplements usually come in pill form and are taken right before meals to help you digest the food you eat. They have few side effects, and can be taken by both children and adults.