Digestive Enzymes: How They Work and The Best Time to Take Them
Here’s why digestive enzymes are so important and why you may need to supplement them if you’re not digesting your food properly.
Common symptoms of low enzymatic production and more serious conditions that can result from longer term pancreatic enzyme deficiency.
Also, what to look for in a good supplement and the ideal time to take them to prevent bloating, gassiness and other gastrointestinal problems.
What are Digestive Enzymes?
The food you eat needs to be broken down in your digestive system to absorb its nutrients: protein into amino acids; complex carbohydrates into simple sugars; fats and oils into fatty acids; as well as various other compounds, like minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and many more.
Digestive enzymes are special substances, produced primarily in your pancreas and small intestine, though also in your saliva glands and stomach, that break down your meals into individual nutrients so that your body can absorb them properly.
The most important of these are the proteases for breaking down proteins, lipases for digesting fats, and amylases for carbohydrates. There are many others though to deal with the wide variety of substances in the food you eat.
If you don’t produce enough of these enzymes during digestion then you will have problems breaking down your food and assimilating the nutrition in it. This leads to low energy, mental fatigue, nutritional deficiencies and many other issues.
Poorly digested food in your intestinal tract can also result in a variety of gastrointestinal problems, of which bloating, abdominal pain and excessive gas are just the earliest warning signs.
Common Symptoms of Enzyme Deficiency
If you’ve minimized indigestible carbohydrates in your diet, are chewing your meals properly and low stomach acid isn’t an issue, yet you’re still experiencing digestive problems, then it’s likely you lack the enzymes to properly break down the meals you’re eating.
Some of the most common symptoms and signs of low digestive enzyme production include:
- Bloating, abdominal pain and intestinal cramps after eating meals.
- Offensive gas, particularly in the evening and early morning.
- Regular belching, indigestion and heartburn.
- A heavy sensation of the last meal you ate sitting in your stomach like a rock for hours.
- Feeling nauseous when you start eating or full up after only taking a few mouthfuls of food.
- Signs of undigested food in your poop when you go to the toilet or regular floating stools.
- Both constipation and diarrhea can be symptoms of low enzymes, depending on the food eaten and the current state of your intestinal environment.
In the longer term, enzyme deficiency robs your body of the nutrition it needs and can result in more serious and difficult to treat complications such as:
- Food allergies and poor immune function.
- Low energy, chronic fatigue and sudden weight loss.
- Ongoing anxiety.
- Gut microbiota dysbiosis.
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s and other autoimmune conditions.
Clearly it’s very important to address symptoms of low digestive enzymes, like bloating, abdominal cramps and offensive gas, early to avoid much more serious problems later on.
Better Meals or Supplements?
The more you can simplify your meals, the more easily they will be digested and provide the amino acids, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, antioxidants and healthy fats your body needs to operate properly.
Instead of eating fast food or a supermarket ready meal, usually full of heavy processed meat, unnatural vegetable oils and gas-causing grains with gluten, try and stick to more basic and nutritious meals.
As an example, salmon mixed with a few low gas vegetables, perhaps a little natural coconut oil or olive oil for satiety and spices for taste.
It can also be very beneficial to eat the protein in your meal first, before tucking into the heavy carbohydrates. This is because protein requires the release of pepsin into your stomach to digest it and eating carbs first delays this process.
If you first finish a big plate of fries and only then start eating your meat, it’s very likely to sit in your stomach like a rock without the pepsin needed to digest it properly.
If you do decide to eat difficult to break down junk food meals occasionally, then your digestive system will appreciate all the help it can get.
They’re not a permanent solution, but from time to time a good enzyme supplement can improve digestion and help prevent bloating and offensive gas.
Should You Supplement Your Natural Production?
If you are currently experiencing regular intestinal problems and symptoms of low digestion enzymes, like belly bloat, tummy pain and bad gas, then check whether one of these flatulence causes could be the problem.
Then again, popular fast food and supermarket meals are usually so difficult to digest that most would benefit from enzyme supplementation when eating ‘foods’ like this.
Broad-spectrum enzyme supplements contain proteases needed to break down tough proteins, lipases for fat digestion and various other enzymes required for a range of different carbohydrates and other food compounds.
If your gastrointestinal system is functioning at its best, you eat well and avoid gassy foods, then you probably don’t need them. Unfortunately, this is true for very few of us living a busy modern life.
What to Look for in a Good Supplement
A good digestive enzyme capsule or tablet should have plenty of protease for breaking down protein.
This is the most important element if you eat a lot of protein rich foods like meat. Papain from papaya and bromelain from pineapples can also help with this job.
Then there’s lipase for fat digestion, amylase for starches, cellulase for fiber and various other enzymes to break down difficult to digest elements in food.
Peptidase for gluten and phytase for breaking down mineral-depleting phytic acid in grains are other good ones to look out for.
The Best Time to Take Digestive Enzyme Supplements
As a general rule, digestive enzymes are best taken just before or at the very start of a meal with a small glass of water. Better yet, swallow them with a sip of intestinal soothing fennel tea or ginger tea.
You don’t want to have them too early, as they may clear the stomach before food arrives. You also don’t want to have them too late after eating, as they have less time to do their work.
How Often Should You Use Them?
It’s recommended to use these supplements occasionally, for big and difficult to digest meals, especially ones with lots of protein, rather than for every meal.
The better your diet, the easier it is to digest your meals properly. Good nutrition also creates the right conditions for proper stomach acid and natural enzyme production.
On the other hand, a processed diet of low-quality processed foods is not only difficult to digest, each meal like this further depletes your pancreatic enzymes and leads to lower stomach acid and more digestion problems.
Broad-spectrum enzymes can help improve food breakdown in the short term. In the longer-term, feeding your body natural foods that are high in nutrition is the best way to ensure good digestion.
Treating Poor Digestion and Gastrointestinal Problems with Enzymes
Low enzyme production can be a weak link in the digestion process for many. Common symptoms, such as abdominal pain, belly bloat and offensive gas, can lead to much more serious complications if not addressed.
Simpler meals will help, but if you do want to have the occasional unhealthy meal then try taking a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme at the same time. Your tummy will thank you for it later.
It’s also well worth looking at simple changes you can make to your diet for less gas problems here with 7 smart food swaps for non gassy foods and better intestinal health.