Are Digestive Enzymes Overrated?

The Business Research Company reported that the global sales of digestive enzyme products was worth $405 million in 2019 and is expected to reach $663 million by 2023.  Clearly, there is a growing demand for its use, but whether it helps with an array of digestive problems the products are advertised for is a different story.  Digestive enzymes can be a powerful tool but only when used appropriately.  

Purpose and Types of Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes help break down foods into smaller units so that the nutrients can be absorbed through the wall of the small intestine and delivered to the rest of the body. The three major enzymes are amylase which breaks down carbohydrates, protease which breaks down proteins, and lipase which breaks down fats.  There are many other minor enzymes, like lactase, invertase, cellulase, etc. Their job is to finish off the work started by the three main enzymes.  

Digestive enzymes can be made from animals or plants.  The prescription-type enzymes (Creon or Zenpep) are made from the pancreas of pigs.  They are activated in an alkaline environment, so it’s best taken at the end of or after a meal.  Over-the-counter products offer both animal and plant-based enzymes.  Sources of plant-based enzymes are fruits, vegetables, yeasts, molds, and fungi.  Commonly known ones are bromelain which is made from pineapple or papain which is made from papaya.  They can be activated in a wide range of environments from acidic to alkalized, so they are best taken before a meal. 

Benefits of Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes are helpful for the body when they correct the deficiency.  Lactose intolerance is one of the most known enzyme deficiencies.  When the body doesn’t have enough lactase, the enzyme that helps break down lactose, the undigested dairy proteins irritate the gastrointestinal tract and cause abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea.  People who suffer from lactose intolerance can prevent or minimize these symptoms when they supplement their dairy meals with lactase.  

So how do you know whether your body is missing certain enzymes for your digestion?  This is a hard question to answer because we don’t have a test for each specific enzyme.  Measuring elastase in the stool is currently the only available tool.  A low level indicates that the pancreas doesn’t provide enough enzymes.  What blend of enzymes to use and how much to use come from an experienced practitioner.  

If you suffer from chronic abdominal pain, bloating, or diarrhea and find that digestive enzymes aren’t helping, it may be because you are not deficient of the enzymes you take, and there are underlying problems not being addressed.  Make sure you speak with a trained professional to investigate the cause.   

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