There’s a lot of confusion surrounding digestive enzyme supplements, and all sorts of people seem to take them for all sorts of reasons. But whether or not you’re likely to benefit from one depends on what your digestive problem is, and what type of enzyme you’re supplementing.
So let’s start with the basics: what is an enzyme?
An enzyme is a protein that facilitates a particular chemical reaction. In digestion, our bodies produce a wide range of different enzymes to facilitate the chemical breakdown of different food components into their smaller, absorbable building blocks.
The important thing to understand about enzymes are that they’re very specific to a particular type of biochemical reaction. In other words, a protein-digesting enzyme—called a protease—cannot break down things that aren’t proteins, like carbohydrates, fats, sugars or fiber. And even within the family of protein-digesting enzymes our bodies produce, different proteases are designed to break down different components of proteins we eat. For example, certain proteases break down the chemical bonds between protein building blocks toward the end of a protein’s chain, whereas others break bonds toward the center of a protein’s chain.
Without getting too mired down in biochemistry here, the first point I’d like to make is this: an enzyme will only help you improve digestion of a food if it’s the right enzyme for the right type of food.
Which brings us to the next question: is poor digestion of certain foods in your diet the cause of your bloating? And if so, which enzyme(s) supplements would target the poorly-digested food in your diet effectively to help alleviate your symptoms?
The most common causes of digestive symptoms from poor digestion and absorption of nutrients are from the following nutrients:
· Lactose, a natural sugar found in milk
· Fructose, a sugar found in certain fruits and sweeteners, and also added to processed foods
· Oligosaccharides, components of fiber commonly found in certain vegetables and beans that we humans don’t make enzymes to break down
Less commonly—but certain not uncommonly--incomplete digestion of fat can cause digestive symptoms. This generally occurs in people with a condition called pancreatic insufficiency, in which their pancreas isn’t able to produce or secrete enough of the fat digesting enzyme lipase to get the digestive job done. (People who don't digest fat well are more likely to complain of foul-smelling diarrhea, toxic smelling gas and weight loss in addition to mere 'bloating,' though.)
It is exceedingly rare for people to have trouble digesting sugar in the form of sucrose (table sugar) or glucose and simple starches (maltose, amylose). These are among the most rapidly and easily absorbed nutrients…even among people whose pancreas function is impaired. Enzyme supplements targeted at breaking these nutrients down are a waste of money.
It is also not very common to experience gas and related bloating from poor digestion of proteins (including gluten) and certain types of plant fiber like cellulose. This is because the gas-producing bacteria living in our guts aren’t particularly well-equipped to ferment these nutrients, even when we don’t digest them. Enzyme supplements targeted at breaking these nutrients down aren’t likely to alleviate much gas or bloating.
Hopefully, this introduction helps explain my approach to the question of digestive enzyme supplements, which is:
The ones most likely to help reduce symptoms of gas, bloating and diarrhea related to poor digestion of nutrients are those which are specific to helping us digest those nutrients most likely to cause digestive distress:
· Lactase enzyme, when taken just before eating lactose-containing dairy foods
· Xylose isomerase, when taken just before eating fructose-containing fruits, juices and sweetened foods
· Alpha-galactosidase, when taken just before eating veggies in the cabbage family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts), beets, lentils, beans and chickpeas
If digesting fat gives you trouble due to problems with your pancreas, then the dose and delivery of lipase enzyme contained in your typical non-prescription enzyme supplement may not get the job done. It’s important to discuss prescription lipase options with your doctor to ensure you’re getting a standardized supplement that will enable you to absorb both fat—and all the fat-linked vitamins you need to meet your needs.
All of the other enzymes commonly contained in dietary supplement products are either redundant to your body’s own very unlikely-to-be-impaired production—or unlikely to reduce symptoms of gas and bloating, since the foods they help digest don’t generally cause gas and bloating to begin with. I regard the following enzyme supplement ingredients to be pretty useless in managing digestive distress in uncomfortable but otherwise healthy people:
· Ox bile
· Betaine Hcl