Supplementary Enzymes are essential to our Digestion! Fact or Fallacy?

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Do we really need to take enzyme supplements? Or is it simply an advertising campaign powered by the ever-increasing number of suppliers? This has become a topic of controversy today, and of course there are arguments for both sides. Also, if we do need to take them, how do we choose from the vast variety of possibilities on the shelf today?1. 

What exactly does a digestive enzyme do in our digestive tract?

Enzymes are catalysts that help break down proteins, carbohydrates and fats into a more simple form, enabling them to be absorbed by the body. The breakdown begins in the mouth, where amylase starts to break down carbohydrates. If you chew enough on a piece of whole wheat bread, you can detect a slightly sweet taste. This is the sugar that is being released as carbohydrates are broken down into more simple sugars. As the food moves into your stomach, gastric juices act on the proteins. Once entering the intestine, the majority of the breaking down occurs where the pancreas and small intestine release amylase, protease and lipase to make the final break down of the proteins, carbohydrates and fats.

So when can supplementary enzymes help?

  • When gastric juices in the stomach are in any way impinged,
  • in the intestine, when the microvilli (brush border) are damaged by disease, drugs or environmental toxins,
  • with pancreatic disease, where essential enzymes are not being produced or are insufficient,
  • intestinal hyper-permeability, food allergies or intolerances can also cause a decrease in digestive enzymes,
  • work and/or personal stress can cause problems, where our ‘fight or flight’ mode puts digestion on hold,
  • Aging is in general associated with a decreased digestive function.

When patients complain about gas and bloating, having a feeling of fullness after a few mouthfuls of food, have heaviness or ‘stone in stomach’ feeling after eating, or have noticed stools are loose and have undigested food in them, these are signs to investigate further what is going on. If you have recurring digestive symptoms, work with a health practitioner to get to the root cause of the problem.2.

Which enzyme product should you choose?

Buying cheap products is a waste of your money.  You can buy just a fruit-based enzyme with bromelain or papain for example, which is extracted from papaya and pineapple, but these are weak.3.   There are also animal-based enzymes but these are unstable. Best is to buy an active plant enzymes with no sugar, wheat, gluten, or soy products. The most important factor is to check the label. The ingredients should show protease, amylase and lipase and their relative quantities.

What digestive-inhibiting foods should you avoid?

In general foods that have been lightly-cooked are easier to digest. Avoid processed foods, preservatives, additives and foods with MSG added. Try to avoid fried and greasy foods, too much coffee or alcohol, ice cream and excessive sugar consumption.

It is also important to note that every individual is different and therefore requires a different style of food and cooking method. As this must be tailored to the individual, it is therefore impossible to say one style of ‘diet’ is correct and will therefore work for everyone. A thin, fiery person requires different food to that of a round, lethargic individual. A person with a weak, slow digestion requires different foods to one who digests rapidly.

The bottom line is that there are many reasons why one might need to take supplements. But it is important not to self-medicate and better to seek advice from a professional who can analyze your complaints and make an educated diagnosis. It is true that enzymes are not always necessary and sometimes even the simple addition of certain foods can make a difference. However, for those who do need them, enzyme supplements can be, and have been, life-changing.

  1. Duker, T. (2013, April 23). Digestive Enzymes. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from
  2. Mercola, D. (n.d.). Digestive Enzymes | Digestion Supplement*. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from
  3. Pereida, T. (2014, February 9). What Fruits Contain Papain or Bromelain? Retrieved November 19, 2015, from
  4. Gerstmar, T. (2012, September 17). Everything you need to know about digestive enzymes. Retrieved November 19, 2015, from

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