If you’ve ever had a meal and felt uncomfortable for hours after—think bloating, indigestion, or cramping—you know how much it sucks.
But what if you could pop a pill and finally have these issues become a thing of the past? Well, digestive enzyme supplements claim to banish bloat and cramping from gastrointestinal issues, so you can enjoy your favorite meals sans the nasty side effects. But do they actually deliver?
What are digestive enzymes?
To understand what digestive enzyme supplements do, you first need to realize that your body already produces digestive enzymes on its own, which help you (you guessed it) digest your food into usable nutrients. “The best analogy I can give is packing for a trip: You can pack the perfect items, but if it all sits in the suitcase, it’s of no benefit to you,” says Lauren Slayton, RD, and founder of NYC-based nutrition practice, Foodtrainers. “Digestive enzymes are the key to unpacking your nutrients.”
There are three main digestive enzyme categories: amylases help to break down starches and sugar, lipases break down fats, and proteases break down proteins. Under these categories, there are several other enzymes responsible for breaking down specific foods, such as lactase for lactose, the sugar found in dairy products, and alpha-galactosidase, for sugars found in beans and cruciferous vegetables.
As long as your body is able to produce these enzymes in the amounts needed for the foods you’re eating on a daily basis, you’re fine. The trouble, however, occurs when they don’t.
Can you get more digestive enzymes naturally?
Slayton says there are a number of ways to naturally get more enzymes. “Stress affects enzyme production for the worse,” so she recommends reading or meditation to inhibit stress, for starters.
Also, try to eat foods that naturally contain enzymes for digestion. These foods all fit the bill, according to the NIH:
- Pineapple contains bromelain, a type of protease that helps to break down protein
- Mango contains amylase ,to help digest starch
- Avocado has lipase to help digest fats
- Kiwi contains a protease called actinidain, which helps to tenderize tough meat
- Bananas contain amylases and glucosidades, which break down complex carbs and sugars
- Ginger has a protease called zingibain
- Papaya has papain, another protease
- Kefir has lipase, protease, and lactase
- Miso has lactase, lipase, protease, and amylase
The speed at which you eat can also play a role, which is why scarfing down a meal really fast sometimes may leave you feeling bloated and uncomfortable. “Enzymes in saliva start to break down food, so chewing well matters!” says Slayton.
What are some signs that a supplement may help?
If you’re experiencing persistent bloating, diarrhea, cramping, or other gastrointestinal symptoms (like undigested food in your stool), consider working with a gastroenterologist or dietitian experienced in digestive health. They can assess to see if a digestive enzyme may be helpful for you, says Rachael Hartley, RD, and founder of Rachael Hartley Nutrition in Columbia, South Carolina.
If you have a lactose intolerance, for instance, then your body is unable to digest dairy, and you might benefit from a supplement containing lactase.
Slayton also says that if you’re above 40 years old, you may want to consider digestive enzymes, since the body naturally stops producing as many the older you get. “If you have Crohn’s disease, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), or celiac disease, digestive enzyme supplements may also help.”
Just make sure to check with your doctor before you start taking any supplements, since they’ll be able to determine via lab testing whether you’re actually low in a certain enzyme.
Want to hear more about healthy eating? Check out what this professional ballerina keeps in her fridge:
What’s in digestive enzyme supplements?
If you doctor prescribes a digestive enzyme, it usually consists of high concentrations of a certain mix of amylase, lipase, and protease. These enzymes are typically made from pigs’ pancreases, and approved by the FDA.
Over-the-counter digestive enzymes, however, are supplements and not medications, which means they’re not regulated by the FDA, and you can’t really be 100 percent sure that they contain everything they promise.
You can get specific ones for lactose intolerance (such as Lactaid) and bloating from beans (Beano), or you can get a more varied one that consists of a number of various enzymes in one tablet. These are for people with bloating and other common issues, but they’re generally not as intense as the ones prescribed to people with severe gastrointestinal disorders.
How are digestive enzymes different from probiotics?
Digestive enzymes and probiotics have the same basic function, i.e., they help you digest your food. But extra probiotics are generally beneficial for everybody (they help feed the healthy bacteria in your gut), while taking digestive enzymes are helpful only if you don’t get enough of a specific enzyme naturally.
“You can take both digestive enzymes and probiotics together, but digestive enzymes are suggested before meals, while probiotics are for after,” explains Slayton. “In fact, a healthy microbiome encourages enzyme production, so these two work well together.”
So, should you take a supplement or not?
It’s a loaded question, and unfortunately, there isn’t one right answer—it’s very individual. “What’s wonderful about digestive enzymes is that they can help many people tolerate foods that might trigger symptoms, which helps them enjoy a wider, more varied, and flexible diet—which means a healthier diet!” says Hartley.
Slayton finds the question a little trickier, and thinks overall, it’s better to cut things out of your diet that you know don’t work for you: “You don’t want to mask another problem or encourage eating a food that doesn’t work for you,” she says. “But for travel, holidays, or a time when you may be consuming foods that don’t work well for your body, that’s a good exception to take a supplement.”
So, if after going through all the facts, you still think you might need a supplement to enjoy your favorite meals, don’t stress: The experts have curated a list of some of the best ones to add to your regimen. All of them have a mix of amylase, lipase, and protease, as well as specific enzymes for issues like lactose intolerance, so they’re bound to help a huge variety of ailments.
Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements
Bottom line: You can get natural digestive enzymes from a number of foods and lifestyle practices, but talk to your doctor if you feel a supplement would help.
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