Enzymes are substances that catalyse or speed up chemical reactions. These include the billions of chemical reactions that happen every day in our body: those in our gut that help to digest our foods, and those that happen in our cells that help to break down, build up and create new substances that we need to survive. Our own body makes most of the enzymes it needs rather than getting them directly from food.
Enzymes for digesting our food
As mentioned above, one of the roles of enzymes in our body is to aid digestion: they help to break down bigger food particles into smaller ones so we can absorb them. These digestive enzymes are produced in various places throughout the digestive tract, as we’ll see below.
The three main types of digestive enzymes are:
- Protease, which breaks down protein
- Amylase, which breaks down carbohydrates
- Lipase, which breaks down fats.
Digestive enzymes are produced by:
- Salivary glands in the mouth. The main enzyme in saliva is amylase, which starts off the digestion of carbohydrates. This is one of the reasons it’s important to chew our food properly, so that the enzymes in saliva can get to work.
- The stomach. The primary enzyme produced here is pepsin, a protease (protein-digesting) enzyme.
- The pancreas – a gland that secretes digestive juices into the small intestine through a duct. It produces all three types of enzymes.
- The walls of the small intestine itself, which also produces all three types of enzymes.
What happens when we don’t produce enough digestive enzymes?
If for any reason our body doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes, we can experience digestive problems. These may include gas or bloating, constipation or diarrhoea. We may also see undigested food in our stool when we go to the toilet. Longer-term consequences may include nutrient deficiencies, low energy or other health problems due to poor absorption of nutrients from the food that we’re eating. (However, there can also be other causes of these symptoms!)
Note: it’s important to see your doctor first of all if you experience persistent changes in bowel habits.
Can we get enzymes in our foods?
Some enzymes are found in our foods too. They are present primarily in raw foods, as most enzymes are destroyed when they are heated. Levels of enzymes are thought to be highest in living raw foods – this means plants eaten just after they are picked, or sprouted seeds or beans that are still growing as you eat them. However, it’s not known for sure whether these enzymes actually help us to digest the food.
Two foods that are known to contain high levels of specific enzymes are pineapple and papaya. Pineapple contains a substance called bromelain, and papaya contains papain. Both of these are actually a mixture of proteases (protein-digesting enzymes). Eating some of these fruits with or after a meal may help in digesting protein foods in that meal – although most of the bromelain in pineapple is found in the hard, fibrous core and so is difficult to get to.
Types of enzyme supplements
1) Digestive enzymes
Most enzyme supplements provide combinations of enzymes such as amylase, lipase and proteases, and are aimed towards supporting digestion. These supplements may also contain other individual types of enzymes that break down small food particles into even smaller ones: examples are maltase, which breaks down maltose from starchy foods; and lactase, which breaks down lactose from milk. They may also contain bromelain or papain from pineapple and papaya, and sometimes other botanical extracts such as ginger that may help to naturally support our body’s own production of digestive juices.
These supplements may be supportive for those who experience some of the digestive symptoms mentioned above, such as chronic gas or bloating, constipation or diarrhoea (sometimes described as irritable bowel syndrome – ‘IBS’). An enzyme supplement may also be recommended by a nutritionist or other practitioner as part of a digestive health programme for their clients, even if the person is not experiencing these symptoms.
This type of enzyme supplement is generally taken with or before meals – especially larger meals.
2) ‘Systemic’ enzymes
A small number of enzyme supplements are not targeted towards digestion, but are meant to have their primary beneficial effects after being absorbed into the bloodstream. They are sometimes known as ‘systemic enzyme’ supplements. The enzymes they include are mainly proteases, also known as proteolytic enzymes (protein-digesting enzymes). This means that some types of proteases, such as bromelain, can actually be used for both purposes – just to make things confusing!
Specific enzymes you may see on the label of this type of supplement include:
- Serrapeptase (sometimes called serratiopeptidase)
- Trypsin and/or chymotrypsin.
So if not digestion, how can these enzymes help us? When they’re absorbed into the blood and reach our tissues, these proteolytic enzymes may have the following benefits:
- Anti-inflammatory activity. They may help with inflammation and pain, including pain associated with arthritis. [1,3,5]
- Helping to prevent or reduce build-up of necrotic (‘dead’) tissue in the body, such as that associated with scars and adhesions .
- Anti-thrombotic activity – this means helping to prevent excessive blood clotting [2,4].
What to look for when buying a supplement
Here we focus primarily on supplements that contain digestive enzymes, as there is a much wider choice of products on offer.
These are some of the factors you may want to consider:
- Plant-sourced (vegetarian/vegan-friendly) versus animal-sourced enzymes. Most enzyme supplements on the market are now plant-sourced, but some are from animal sources. This is usually clear from the nutritional information on the label – but double-check if this is a concern for you. For those who can take both types, there is no clear-cut benefit of one over the other, although some experts say that plant-sourced enzymes are active for longer in the digestive tract and may be a better choice.
- Broad-spectrum enzyme supplements versus single or targeted enzymes: Most digestive enzyme supplements are designed to support digestion of all types of food – proteins, carbohydrates and fats. They are the best choice for general digestive support. You should see on the label a minimum of three enzymes – amylase, lipase, and protease – but many supplements include a much wider range than this. Other supplements contain single enzymes only, such as lactase for helping to digest milk, or bromelain for supporting protein digestion (or for ‘systemic’ use). Yet others may contain a specific blend for supporting digestion of fats only, carbohydrates only, or proteins only, and may be more beneficial if you have a suspected problem with digesting these individual types of foods.
- Quality and strength of the enzymes: This can be very difficult to judge, as enzyme potency is not measured in milligrams but in units, and the types of units can vary between different products. For example, one product may measure amylase in ‘amylase units’ (AU); another may measure it using units ‘DU’. If you’re struggling to find the best quality or highest-strength product, it can be beneficial to get a recommendation from a nutritional practitioner.
If you are taking any medications or have any medical condition, please consult your healthcare practitioner before taking enzyme supplements.
Supplements containing protease enzymes should be avoided if you have an inflammatory condition affecting your digestive tract, such as gastritis, colitis or ulcerative conditions of the stomach/intestine. These include most broad-spectrum digestive enzymes, systemic enzymes and individual protease enzymes such as bromelain.
Enzyme supplements should not be taken during pregnancy.
- Walker AF et al. Bromelain reduces mild acute knee pain and improves well-being in a dose-dependent fashion in an open study of otherwise healthy adults. Phytomedicine. 2002 Dec;9(8):681-6.
- Sahbaz A et al. Bromelain: a natural proteolytic for intra-abdominal adhesion prevention. Int J Surg. 2015 Feb;14:7-11. doi: 10.1016/j.ijsu.2014.12.024. Epub 2015 Jan 6.
- Müller S et al. Placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial on the immunomodulating activities of low- and high-dose bromelain after oral administration - new evidence on the antiinflammatory mode of action of bromelain. Phytother Res. 2013 Feb;27(2):199-204. doi: 10.1002/ptr.4678. Epub 2012 Apr 20.
- Hsia CH et al. Nattokinase decreases plasma levels of fibrinogen, factor VII, and factor VIII in human subjects. Nutr Res. 2009 Mar;29(3):190-6. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2009.01.009.
- Viswanatha Swamy AH, Patil PA. Effect of some clinically used proteolytic enzymes on inflammation in rats. Indian J Pharm Sci. 2008 Jan;70(1):114-7. doi: 10.4103/0250-474X.40347.