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Would I benefit from taking digestive enzymes?

table of food
Highlights
  • Risk factors for incomplete digestion include advanced age, use of acid suppressors, and chronic inflammation
  • Supplementary digestive enzymes can help restore digestion for individuals with reduced enzyme functionality

You know that old saying, “You are what you eat?” Well, it’s a lie. Ok, more like a half-truth. 

A more accurate statement would be, you are what you digest. This is because, only as small molecules can our food pass through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream to be used for nourishment and energy.

Luckily, we usually have help. Enzymes naturally residing in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, and small intestine aid digestion by deconstructing the macromolecules that compose our food into component parts, and ultimately, into the basic building blocks of our cells.1 For example, 

  • Amylase enzymes break down carbohydrates into monosaccharides (sugar molecules)
  • Protease enzymes break down proteins into amino acids
  • Lipase enzymes break down fats into fatty acids
  • Lactase enzymes break down lactose into sugars (glucose and galactose). 

Factors related to reduced enzyme functionality

But what if we don’t have enough help? That is, what if our bodies do not produce enough active digestive enzymes to break food down into the energy and nutrients we need? Unfortunately, a variety of uncomfortable and potentially serious health conditions can arise if a person has insufficient levels of the enzymes needed to assist in digestion and nutrient extraction. Given the critical roles these enzymes play in maintaining all structures and functions within the body, adequate levels of enzymes from the amylase, protease, and lipase groups are critical for maintaining digestive health and overall wellness.  

The good news is, most people do not have an issue with insufficient enzymes. The bad news is, factors such as advanced age, poor diet, use of antacids and acid suppressors (i.e., low stomach acid), and health conditions associated with chronic inflammation or pancreatic insufficiency can negatively impact the production and activity of digestive enzymes.26 In other words, one or more of these factors can result in gastrointestinal distress and difficulties with nutrient absorption.  

Fortunately, clinical research affords us more good news. Studies show that supplemental digestive enzymes (e.g., protease, lipase, amylase, lactase, etc.) can promote healthy digestion in individuals with reduced enzyme functionality. More specifically, supplementation with these enzymes has been shown to:

  • promote normal digestive activities,7
  • improve malnutrition outcomes,8
  • optimize nutrition status,9 and 
  • increase nutrient absorption.10

How do I know if I need a digestive enzyme?

Although the only definitive way to confirm reduced enzyme functionality is with the help of a medical professional, signs that you may be experiencing incomplete digestion include diarrhea, abdominal pain, excessive bloating or flatulence, and nausea after eating. For example, people who don’t produce enough of the lactase enzyme typically experience incomplete digestion after consuming lactose—a carbohydrate found in milk and dairy. Fortunately, symptoms of lactose tolerance can be managed by avoiding foods containing lactose or with the help of supplemental lactase enzymes.11 If you frequently experience symptoms of indigestion after eating (or if any of the factors related to reduced enzyme functionality pertain to you), we encourage you to speak with your doctor about whether supplemental digestive enzymes can help. 

Gina Jaeger, PhD is a Developmental Specialist and Lead Research Writer for Nordic Naturals. She holds a doctorate in Human Development, and has published several research articles on children's cognitive development. Gina enjoys studying and educating others on strategies for optimizing health and wellness throughout the lifespan.

1. Roxas M. Altern Med Rev. 2008. 13(4): p. 307-14.
2. Laugier R, et al. Digestion. 1991. 50(3-4): p. 202-11.
3. Pali-Schöll I, Jensen-Jarolim E. Allergy. 2011. 66(4): p. 469–477.
4. Trikha A, et al. European Society of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology. 2013. 24(6): p. 582-588.
5. Chotikatum S, et al. Int Immunopharmacol. 2018. 55: p. 336-344.
6. Imrie CW, et al. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2010. 32: p. 1-25.
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8. Bartels RH, et al. J Pediatr. 2017. 190:85-92.e2.
9. Fargas MC, et al. Nutrition. 1996; 12(3): p. 189–194.
10. Wier HA, Kuhn RJ. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2011. 23(5): p. 541–544.
11. Ianiro G et al. Curr Drug Metab. 2016. 17(2): p. 187-93.