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From bacon and burgers to Brussels sprouts and beans, many people often experience uncomfortable digestive-related symptoms after eating certain foods.
But you’re not alone—surveys reveal that up to three-quarters of Americans deal with gastrointestinal-related symptoms on a regular basis.
With this increasingly high prevalence of indigestion, you may have come across digestive enzymes in your search for supplements to improve gut health.
But what are digestive enzymes exactly, and how do they work?
In this article, learn all about the main types and benefits of these digestion supporters, what to expect when taking digestive enzymes, and the best time to take them.
The word “enzyme” simply means a protein that helps speed up, or catalyze, a reaction in the body.
In this case, digestive enzymes are proteins we secrete to help facilitate the breakdown of food into smaller building blocks that our cells can use.
Digestion happens in two primary ways—the mechanical digestion of chewing and the enzymatic pathway that uses these little protein catalysts to break down food particles.
All of the food we eat is made up of three macronutrients that require digestion before they can be absorbed—proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
For example, we can’t just absorb a turkey and cheese sandwich whole—it needs to be broken down from protein, fat, and carbohydrates into amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars.
Digestive enzymes are produced and released by several organs throughout our 30-foot-long gastrointestinal tube, including the mouth, stomach, pancreas, and small intestine.
Interestingly, the sight and smell of food are enough to trigger the first stage of digestion—you’ve probably noticed this if your mouth has ever started watering upon seeing or smelling your favorite food.
Although you may think that most digestive enzymes would be produced in the stomach or intestines, the pancreas is the superstar when it comes to enzyme secretion—it produces the primary enzymes that help our body break down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
When enzymes break down food into their smaller units, they can be readily absorbed, which occurs primarily in the small intestine.
The end-products of digestion also include vitamins, minerals, and water, which cross over the intestinal mucosa and enter the lymph or blood to be used by our cells for various activities.
However, although our guts naturally secrete digestive enzymes, their production begins to decline with age, stress, disease, or poor diet.
Inadequate enzyme action will lead to incomplete food breakdown, causing those painful and uncomfortable symptoms after meals.
The three primary digestive enzyme families include:
However, there are dozens of other enzymes that we can supplement with to help us break down and absorb foods, including:
|Type of Digestive Enzyme||What Does It Break Down?|
|Cellulase and hemicellulase||Plant fibers and cell walls, like those in fruits and vegetables.|
|Phytase||Phytates, which are the primary form of phosphorus found in plants like beans, grains, and nuts.|
|Pectinase||Pectin, which is found in the cell walls of plants like apples, citrus fruits, carrots, and apricots.|
|Bromelain and papain||Found naturally in pineapple and papaya, respectively, bromelain and papain help break down protein.|
|Invertase||Breaks down sucrose (table sugar) into smaller sugars we can easily absorb.|
|Beta-glucanase||Breaks down beta-glucan fibers found in grains like oats and barley.|
|Alpha-galactosidase||For the carbohydrates found in beans (this enzyme is found in the over-the-counter supplement Bean-O).|
|Trypsin and chymotrypsin||Both are proteases that break down protein.|
There are single-enzyme formulations—like lactase supplements to break down dairy sugars or the alpha-galactosidase found in Bean-O—and broad-spectrum digestive enzymes designed to help you comfortably eat a wide range of foods.
Rather than buy a dozen single-enzyme supplements—and have to remember which one to take with each meal—a broad-spectrum, multi-enzyme digestive aid can do all the work for you.
An example of a multi-enzyme supplement is Onnit’s Total Gut Health, which contains 16 powerful enzymes—as well as prebiotics, probiotics, and stomach acid boosters—to keep your digestion rolling smoothly.
In addition to digestive enzyme supplements, there are also natural, food-based sources of enzymes that you can add to your diet to facilitate digestion.
Foods with the greatest amounts of natural enzymes include:
Unsurprisingly, one of the leading benefits of digestive enzymes is improved digestion.
The most common gastrointestinal symptoms that digestive enzymes can benefit include:
While a lot of support for digestive enzymes is anecdotal, we do have some valid research backing up these claims.
In one study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, 40 adults were randomized to take either a proprietary multienzyme complex or a placebo with each meal for 60 days.
People in the digestive enzyme group—which contained a blend of amylase, protease, lipase, lactase, and cellulase—experienced improvements in several markers of dyspepsia (the fancy word for indigestion) compared to the placebo group.
Specifically, the treatment group had significantly reduced symptoms of stomach pain, post-meal distention (bloating), indigestion, heartburn, and nausea, with improved quality of life—and the placebo group had none of these benefits.
When we break down our food completely, we are better able to absorb the nutrients that are packed inside.
Pancreatic enzymes, especially lipase, amylase, trypsin, and chymotrypsin, play the most essential role in ensuring we break down food for optimal nutrient absorption.
In people without adequate enzyme output, nutrient malabsorption can occur, which can eventually lead to nutrient deficiencies if prolonged.
Leaky gut is a colloquial term for intestinal hyperpermeability—a condition in which the layer of epithelial cells that line the intestine becomes “leaky” with growing gaps between each cell.
When the intestinal lining becomes more permeable, toxins, pathogens, and too-big proteins can travel out of the gut into the bloodstream, purportedly causing digestive problems like heartburn, indigestion, diarrhea, bloating, and low energy.
Digestive enzymes may be able to help leaky gut because they help you break down and absorb food better—if a food is making its way through your digestive tract without proper digestion, parts of it can sneak through the leaky intestinal wall and cause these symptoms.
Digestive enzymes can also diminish irritation and inflammation in the gut, which strengthens the gut lining and reduces leaky gut prevalence.
High-fat foods are one of the most common triggers for acid reflux, which is when stomach acid travels back up the esophagus and creates a burning feeling.
Digestive enzymes can help efficiently break down these fatty foods, moving them along from the stomach into the intestines more quickly and relieving acid reflux symptoms.
It’s thought that one reason behind several skin conditions, including acne, rosacea, and eczema, is excess inflammation in the gut.
Digestive enzymes may be able to help reduce this inflammation that occurs from incomplete food digestion, which leads to leaky gut and potential skin issues.
Plus, nutrient malabsorption may also lead to skin conditions, as we need vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids to have healthy skin.
People with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) are at the top of the list of those who absolutely need digestive enzymes because they can’t produce adequate amounts of them on their own.
EPI is defined as a deficiency of exocrine pancreatic enzymes, which leads to an inability to properly digest food—especially fats.
Causes of EPI include chronic pancreatitis and other pancreatic disorders, celiac disease, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, short bowel syndrome, and gastric surgery.
People with EPI have to take specialized prescription enzymes that are known as pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) and contain an abundance of lipase to facilitate fat breakdown.
Other groups who may need enzymes are those with digestive diseases, including celiac disease, lactose intolerance, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Lastly, people who have uncomfortable symptoms after eating may want to experiment with digestive enzymes to see if their guts improve.
Plus, taking a digestive enzyme and probiotic combination may further benefit digestive health in these latter two groups.
Despite all of the potential benefits of digestive enzymes, they can cause some side effects if you don’t really need them.
If unneeded, digestive enzymes can actually cause some of the symptoms you’re trying to fix, including diarrhea, upset stomach, nausea, or constipation—especially if you take too much of them.
Although rare, some people may experience allergic reactions to some ingredients in digestive enzymes.
You will need to speak with your doctor first before taking digestive enzymes if you have a history of liver disease, gallbladder disease, or stomach ulcers.
However, most people tolerate digestive enzymes well in the recommended dosages, which will vary based on product and type of enzyme.
If you know you have trouble digesting certain foods—like beans always make you bloat, for example—then taking an alpha-galactosidase digestive enzyme before every bean-containing meal is wise.
However, in this case, you wouldn’t need to take digestive enzymes in meals without beans.
Conversely, some people have issues digesting just about everything, and can’t quite pinpoint what foods make them most uncomfortable, so a broad-spectrum multi-enzyme before each meal could be beneficial.
The best time to take digestive enzymes is before you eat—ideally about 10 minutes before—which is enough time for them to reach your stomach and mix with gastric juices.
This is because of the cephalic phase of digestion—the mouthwatering that happens when we see food, which triggers pancreatic enzyme release.
If you can’t remember to take them 10 minutes before your meal, taking digestive enzymes right when you start eating should still do the trick.
However, taking digestive enzymes after you eat will unfortunately not help you at all, as the food has already started digesting and passing through the stomach.
As mentioned, it takes about ten minutes for digestive enzymes to reach the stomach and start working.
This is why we recommend taking digestive enzyme supplements about ten minutes before each meal.
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Felicilda-Reynaldo RF, Kenneally M. Digestive Enzyme Replacement Therapy: Pancreatic Enzymes and Lactase. Medsurg Nurs. 2016;25(3):182-185.
Ianiro G, Pecere S, Giorgio V, Gasbarrini A, Cammarota G. Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases. Curr Drug Metab. 2016;17(2):187-193. doi:10.2174/138920021702160114150137
Keller J, Layer P. Human pancreatic exocrine response to nutrients in health and disease. Gut. 2005;54 Suppl 6(Suppl 6):vi1-vi28. doi:10.1136/gut.2005.065946
Majeed M, Majeed S, Nagabhushanam K, et al. Evaluation of the Safety and Efficacy of a Multienzyme Complex in Patients with Functional Dyspepsia: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. J Med Food. 2018;21(11):1120-1128. doi:10.1089/jmf.2017.4172
Martin SH. Papaïn-Digestion. J Physiol. 1885;5(4-6):213-230. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1885.sp000165
Peyrot des Gachons C, Breslin PA. Salivary Amylase: Digestion and Metabolic Syndrome. Curr Diab Rep. 2016;16(10):102. doi:10.1007/s11892-016-0794-7
Struyvenberg MR, Martin CR, Freedman SD. Practical guide to exocrine pancreatic insufficiency – Breaking the myths. BMC Med. 2017;15(1):29. Published 2017 Feb 10. doi:10.1186/s12916-017-0783-y
Energy drinks and sugary snacks may be louder, sweeter, and faster-acting than natural sources of sugar, but rarely are those benefits conferred without some form of reckoning down the road.
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