Do I Need Digestive Enzymes?

Enriched flour, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fat, genetically-modified ingredients (ie: soy, cane sugar, corn), monosodium glutamate (MSG), sodium nitrate…they’re all ingredients our bodies don’t need, and sad to say, they’re in so many foods! Am I the only one disappointed in the direction the food industry has gone? The quality of our food supply seems to be getting worse—there are so many overly processed foods far from their natural state. As I peruse a mainstream grocery store, I’m quite disgusted at the number of foods with terrible ingredients.

The highly processed nature of our current food supply is overloading the human body…resulting in gas, bloating, indigestion and elimination challenges. People often tell me they experience these type of symptoms. Is this something digestive enzymes could help with?

What are Digestive Enzymes?

In general, enzymes are the workhorses that create very specific chemical reactions throughout the body. Because enzymes have specific jobs, there are a handful of them that aid digestion, aka: digestive enzymes!

Digestive enzymes are proteins that facilitate the chemical breakdown of food into smaller, absorbable components.

Amylase enzymes break down starches into sugar molecules

Protease enzymes break down proteins into amino acids

Lipase enzymes break down fat into fatty acids and glycerol

It works something like this—when you put food into your mouth and begin chewing it, you break the food up into smaller segments and mix it with saliva. The digestive enzymes in your saliva start the pre-digestive process in your mouth, and this continues while your food is on its way to your stomach.

In the stomach your food is mixed with hydrochloric acid that helps to digest starches. More enzymes are added at this point which helps to break down your food even further and turn it into a paste-like substance called chyme.

If the body is not producing adequate amounts of enzymes, then problems can occur. An enzyme known as lactase is produced within our intestinal walls to break down the milk sugar (lactose) found in milk. If this enzyme is not properly produced, it can cause lactose intolerance in people who consume dairy products.

Factors That Deplete Digestive Enzymes

1. Age

As we age, our body loses its ability to produce its own enzymes, and so we have to include them in our diet. Some studies have shown when older people are compared to younger people, older people may have 50% less digestive enzyme activity. There are only two ways to increase your levels of digestive enzymes. One way is by eating raw organic food, and the other is by taking enzyme supplements. 

2. Medications

Digestive enzymes are designed to work at a very specific pH. If you take a lot of medications that can change the pH in your digestive tract, such as antacids, acid-suppressing medications, they may render your digestive enzymes less active. Maintaining a specific pH is very important for the activity of your digestive enzymes.

3. Diet

The food you eat is important in terms of your digestive health. It's very difficult for your body to break down processed food, so your digestive enzymes have to go into overdrive to complete digestion. Also, processed foods often contain a lot of food coloring, chemicals, additives, and preservatives, and those chemicals can actually destroy your digestive enzymes.

For some people, enzymes are the driving force for a raw food based diet, while others may not ever give enzymes a second thought. Enzymes are tiny forces that can have a huge impact on our heath and digestion!

But don't get digestive enzymes confused with probiotics because they are two very different substances in our body. Here's how to understand the difference between the two.

Signs Digestive Enzymes are Needed

Certain signs nad symptoms can indicate your body may not be making sufficient digestive enzymes. For many people, supplements that replenish digestive enzymes can reduce or eliminate those problems, especially while you’re healing your gut.

  • Bloating after a meal
  • Post-meal gas
  • Constipation
  • Heartburn
  • Sensation of food sitting in your stomach
  • Feeling full after a few bites of food
  • Floating stools

Good Food Sources for Digestive Enzymes

Some good food sources for enzymes are alfalfa, barley grass, chlorella, spirulina, kelp, peppermint, sea vegetables, extra virgin olive oilraw honey, grapes, figs, and many tropical fruits such as avocadoes, dates, bananas, kiwi, pineapple, papaya and mangos.

Pineapple is high in an enzyme known as bromelain, while papaya is a natural source of the enzyme papain. Papain is an enzyme that breaks down protein, while bromelain can help support healthy inflammatory levels in the body.   

Did you know? Bananas are an excellent first food for babies, because they are rich in amylase. Babies cannot produce amylase enzymes to digest starches until they are at least a year old. Bananas contain this enzyme already built-in, making them an easy food for baby to digest!

Cooking Food - a Dangerous Destruction to Enzymes

Enzymes are delicate, living things that can be negatively affected by heat. As temperatures increase, so does the rate of reaction for enzymes, leading up to a denaturing of enzymes at very high temperatures. How high? There is a small amount of discussion on this topic, but the current consensus is between 105° and 118° fahrenheit. This means anytime you cook a food above this temperature, you are destroying the natural occuring enzymes present in that food. The destruction of these enzymes means the body will find it harder to digest the foods, and you will receive less nutrient value from the foods you eat. Without food enzymes to help break down our foods, our pancreas must then create all of the enzymes necessary to digest cooked foods. This is why many people adhere to a strict raw food diet.

Raw foodists try to consume most or all of their foods "raw", or prepared at temperatures below this recommended temperature range.

Proponants for a raw food diet claim that eating mostly raw food leads to better health, improved body weight, a reduction in symptoms of food allergies and inflammatory conditions, and improved immunity. Raw foodists tend to eat a mostly plant-based diet, but some will include unpasteurized dairy, raw meat, eggs, and fish.

If changing your diet completely to a raw food based diet doesn't sound like something you are ready to commit to fully, there are still ways to improve your digestion and nutrition through digestive enzymes. Including more raw foods into your diet is certainly something most people can accomplish by adding more raw fruits and vegetables to their meals. Digestive enzyme supplements can step in and bridge the gaps left between your cooked meals and raw additions, as well. How do you know if digestive enzymes supplements could work for you?

How to Select A Digestive Enzyme Supplement

Not all digestive enzymes are created equal. Remember heat can destroy enzymes, so the manufacturing process of enzymes is important. Enzyme supplements should have a high "activity" level. The activity units of enzymes are measured by the Food Chemical Codex (FCC), and generally are expressed as follows:

Protease - HUT (Hemoglobin Unit Tyrosine base), or USP

Amylase - DU (Alpha-amylase Dextrinizing Units)

Lipase - CU (Cellulase unit)

Lactase - LacU (Lactase unit)

Invertase - IAU (Inverase Activity unit)

An enzyme supplement that contains 45,000 HUT of protease will break down three times more protein in a given time than an enzyme supplement that contains 15,000 HUT of protease. The greater the number of enzyme activity units, the greater the amount of enzyme activity will be within a given time for that supplement.

If you're considering the use of digestive enzymes in treatment of a chronic condition, make sure to consult your physician before starting your supplement regimen.

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods


Pubmed: How do Enyzmes Work? Kraut, 1988.

The Effects of Temperature and pH on Enzyme Kinetics: 

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