There are many pieces to the digestive puzzle — from saliva all the way down to your microbiome. While I’ve touched on many of the individual digestive system mechanisms, I’ve never specifically talked about digestive enzymes, which happen to be a HUGE part of the puzzle. This is, even more, important with so many people turning to digestive enzyme supplements to try and solve their digestive issues.
So, what are digestive enzymes? What should we know about how they work? Could they be the reason you’re digestive system is completely upset all the time?
Let’s take a deep dive into digestive enzymes, supplements, and natural sources!
What are Digestive Enzymes?
You’ve most likely heard the term enzymes, yet that’s a pretty broad term encompassing a large group of biological molecules. These molecules are typically proteins — but not always — which “significantly speed up the rate of virtually all of the chemical reactions that take place within cells.” They’re not only vital to sustaining life, but they also “serve a wide range of important functions in the body, such as aiding in digestion and metabolism.”
Alright, now we’re getting to the nitty-gritty. What are digestive enzymes?
One of the biggest enzyme tasks is breaking down the food we eat — some enzymes are “secreted starting in the mouth, and others further down in the digestive tract.” Why is this important? Turns out that these enzymes make it possible for our bodies to “digest our food and absorb the subsequent nutrients properly.” While there are a handful of digestive enzymes, the most important to take note of include “proteases (which break down proteins), lipases (fats), and amylases (starches and sugars).”
Why is it important to take note of digestive enzymes?
They’re not only an integral part of our digestive systems — making sure our body gets nutrients and passing food along to be excreted — but these enzymes are easily disrupted. For instance, “diseases of the stomach and small intestine can reduce the number of enzymes produced,” including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, chronic pancreatitis, or even those with low stomach acidity.
Knowing about your digestive system is important and these digestive enzymes play a hugely important role in the machine!
Know Your Enzymes: Proteases, Lipases, Amylases
The first step in determining if you need a little enzymatic boost is learning the types of digestive enzymes that play integral roles. These include protease, lipase, and amylase. Each of these enzymes serves very specific functions in the body and is necessary for overall well-functioning systems!
Protease sources it’s named from the macronutrient it helps break down … protein. We all know how important protein is for a well-rounded, healthy body, yet “like every other type of nutrient, we need to be able to extract it from either our diet or another source.”
This is where protease enzymes come into play!
Protease enzymes — also referred to as peptidases or proteinases — have an extensive role including breaking down “protein in food into amino acids, which the body can then use for energy” and recycling proteins, as well as aiding with blood clotting, cell division, and immune support. On top of that, protease enzymes can be helpful for digestive support, especially for “people who experience indigestion symptoms like loss of appetite, bloating, and abdominal discomfort.”
These essential molecules are produced in the pancreas, “but the pancreas doesn’t produce protease in a working condition. Alright, so how does it work? Well, your pancreas produces inactive protease, which is then “activated by another enzyme found in the intestine.”
Without both of these enzymes, you don’t have a working protease enzyme to begin with!
Lipase gets its name from the fact that it breaks down fats or lipids.
Just like protease, lipase is “produced naturally by … the pancreas.” So, what does it do? Well, it’s all about eating those healthy fats! When you eat fatty foods, “the fat can’t be absorbed by the body in its original form,” therefore lipase helps to break down these fats into “fatty acids and glycerol, products that can be carried in water-based fluids like blood and lymph.” Once broken down, the body uses these components for energy. With that said, lipase needs more than just, well, lipase to break down fats. When fat content “reaches the small intestines, bile is released by the gallbladder to help break down fat molecules into much smaller molecules that lipase can act on.”
Yet, lipase is more complex than just a fat deconstructor! Lipase is also created within the stomach. This type of lipase is called gastric lipase and is “specifically designed to target butterfat.” Plus, recent research has found that lipase is also essential for managing healthy levels of triglycerides, which are an excellent source of energy.
Alright, so protease is responsible for those proteins and lipase is responsible for those fats. Amylase is then responsible for breaking down “the bonds of starches, polysaccharides, and complex carbohydrates into easier to absorb simple sugars.”
Yet, while you may hear about protease and lipase a bit more often, digestion begins with amylase.
This first step is via salivary amylase, which is the initial “step in the chemical digestion of food,” and it’s why chewing your food is so very important for instigating the entire digestion process. Chewing not only creates this salivary amylase, but it also ensures the “ultimate liberation of nutrients” from your food “to be absorbed later in the digestive process.”
Once the protease has found the proteins and the lipase has found the lipids, additional amylase enzymes are “released from the pancreas into the proximal small intestine” to break down those starches, polysaccharides, and complex carbs!
All About Digestive Enzyme Supplements
So far, I’ve mentioned a few times about the body lacking digestive enzymes.
This can be a pretty big deal, as these enzymes play dramatic and essential roles in not only extracting nutrients from the different macronutrients of your diet, but they also break down the food to be processed and excreted by your digestive system. One little enzyme can skew the entire process! A digestive enzyme deficiency can lead to unpleasant side effects including regular gas, bloating, and indigestion, after consuming a meal.
That’s where digestive enzyme supplements can make a world of difference!
Of course, there’s always a stipulation. As is similar with almost all over-the-counter (OTC) meds, “enzyme supplements aren’t regulated or verified, which means that choosing trustworthy products is essential.” This is especially challenging when looking for a vegan certified product. The good news? Recent research has found that plant-based enzyme supplements are actually “more effective because they can withstand the acids in our stomachs,” better than animal product supplements. In fact, “recent studies comparing animal-based to plant-based enzymes side-by-side show that plant-based enzymes may be as much as 13 times more effective for things like fat metabolization, among other things.”
This means, get your plant-based, vegan certified supplement on!
Finding a Safe Supplement
First and foremost, have a chat with your doctor to make sure that you actually need digestive enzymes. Digestive issues can be a sign of other more aggressive issues, therefore make sure you’ve gone over all the options with your doctor and laid out a plan for integrating proper digestive enzyme supplements.
Next, learn your options!
Most of us will probably need a mix or a “complex” of digestive enzymes in order to supplement a deficiency. Luckily, this is the most popular type of supplement available! This Pure Vegan Digestive Enzyme Complex for $15.99 is complete with a “proprietary blend of acid-stable, plant-based digestive enzymes” including amylase, protease I, protease II, lactase, lipase, cellulase, maltase, and hemicellulase. This Garden of Life Organic Chewable Enzyme Supplement for $21.69 contains a whopping 13 digestive enzymes! These Nested Naturals Digestive Enzyme Supplements for $25.95 contain a blend of “amylase, lactase, lipase, protease, bromelain, and papain (extracted from papaya).”
Looking for a specific one-off enzyme supplement?
Plant-Based Foods with Natural Digestive Enzymes
Even though supplements are an excellent way to go to get those digestive enzymes, you can also find these wonderful digestive aids naturally. A variety of plant-based foods are naturally rich in enzymes including tropical fruits and fermented foods. If you’re looking to go all-natural, try a few of these digestive enzyme powerhouses!
When looking for that perfect enzyme supplement, you may notice almost all of them source their enzymes from bromelain, which comes from … you guessed it … pineapples! Specifically, bromelain is part of the protease enzyme group, which, as we learned, “break down protein into its building blocks, including amino acids.” This not only helps with overall digestion, but protease also helps the body absorb protein.
It helps that pineapple is a friggin delicious plant-based food as well! Try a few of these bromelain-rich recipes: Pina Colada Protein Smoothie, Sweet Pineapple Tempeh Stir Fry, Carrot and Pineapple Salad With Curry Sauce, Basil Pineapple Ginger Smoothie, or these Pineapple Scones.
Yes! Lovely, creamy, delicious, healthy fat-filled avocados are also a wonderful source of natural digestive enzymes. In particular, avocadoes contain lipase, which makes sense as they are so rich in healthy fats such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, and saturated fat. As mentioned earlier, lipase “helps digest fat molecules into smaller molecules, such as fatty acids and glycerol, which are easier for the body to absorb.”
Outside of the traditional guacamole and “stuffed” avocado recipes, this dense fruit is also a truly wonderful vegan alternative for smoothies and creamy desserts such as this Matcha Avocado Smoothie, this Key Lime Tart, this Chocolate Banana Avocado Pudding, this Avocado Goji Pudding, or this Pistachio Avocado Ice Cream.
Taking a moment from the fruit, let’s marvel at the wonderful enzyme-filled miso! Made from the fermenting of “soybeans with salt and koji,” it turns out this wonderful Japanese ingredient is not only gut boosting but is also rich in a “variety of digestive enzymes, including lactases, lipases, proteases, and amylases.”
Try some of these flavor-filled miso-rich recipes: Peanut Butter and Miso Roasted Eggplant, Tofu Sheet Pan Meal With “Cheezy” Miso Tahini Sauce, Miso Cilantro Edamame Dip, Fresh Rainbow Rolls With Miso Peanut Sauce, or this Macrobiotic Miso Bowl.
Another tropical fruit makes the list for its digestive enzyme-rich content! Mangos contain the “digestive enzyme amylase,” which we learned earlier are a “group of enzymes that break down carbs from starch … into sugars like glucose and maltose.” Plus, the riper the mango, the more active those digestive enzymes will be!
Even though it’s still winter, it doesn’t mean you can’t get your tropical recipes on! Try a few of these mango-rich meals: Mango Sticky Rice, Quinoa Mango Kheer, Mango Cabbage Salsa, Guacamole with Mango, Mango Cherry Popsicles, or these Quinoa and Red Bean Tacos With Mango Salsa.
Seems like ginger is simply good for your body no matter what you’re looking to do. Treat nausea, yep! Kick a cold, yep! Boost your gut bacteria, yep! Plus, ginger also contains a protease digestive enzyme called zingibain. This lovely digestive enzyme has been shown to help food move a bit faster through the digestive tract, reducing the chance of excessive gas, bloating, and indigestion.
Plus, most of us think about ginger as one of those savory spices for your sautees, but ginger is actually a wonderful spicey ingredient for sweet treats such as these Gingerbread Sticky Buns, this Gluten-Free Ginger Molasses Cookie Skillet, this Frosted Gingerbread Baked Oatmeal, this Golden Milk Frappuccino, or this Raw Turmeric Ginger Smoothie.
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