How important are enzymes? They act as catalysts for thousands of reactions in our body. Enzymes not only promote digestion, some have anti-inflammatory properties too.
Enzymes are protein molecules that help make reactions happen more easily and quickly in our bodies. Whether we suffer from a condition such as lactose intolerance or sore muscles or we’re just having trouble digesting that burrito, supplemental digestive enzymes may offer some assistance.
What do enzymes do?
The body contains many different enzymes that catalyze thousands of reactions. Without enzymes, most of the chemical reactions in our bodies would happen so slowly that they would effectively not be happening at all.
When most people think of enzymes, they usually think of digestive enzymes. These enzymes speed up the reactions that allow us to break down our food, and without them, our ability to obtain nutrients from food would be pretty limited. Most digestive enzymes can be grouped into one of three categories.
- Protease enzymes help to digest proteins.
- Lipases help to digest fats.
- Carbohydrases help to digest carbohydrates such as starches and sugars.
Therapeutic use of digestive enzymes
Although they are widely used as supplements to aid digestion, very little research has been done on the use of digestive enzymes in average, healthy people. Most research has been conducted in those with medical conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, where the body is unable to produce sufficient amounts of its own enzymes.
Nevertheless, many people swear by the benefits of digestive enzymes, particularly for large or overly indulgent meals. This could very well be because the amount of fats, protein, or carbohydrates being ingested is temporarily overwhelming their own enzyme supply, and supplements are helping to take up the slack. While research is still ongoing, enzymes are considered safe and are unlikely to cause harm when taken as directed by a health care practitioner in these situations.
Still, it is important not to let digestive symptoms carry on undiagnosed. If you find that you are having ongoing symptoms or have trouble digesting food unless you use enzyme supplements, check with your health care practitioner. Ongoing digestive symptoms can be a sign of underlying health issues that may need attention. See sidebars “Cautions around digestive enzymes” and “GI danger symptoms” for more details.
Enzymes for food digestion
People who are most likely to benefit from digestive enzyme supplements are those who lack sufficient levels of certain enzymes of their own. Examples supported by research include lactose intolerance and difficulty digesting complex carbohydrates such as those found in beans.
This enzyme is required to properly break down lactose, the sugar found in milk. People who are lactose intolerant do not have enough lactase, and as a result, lactose-containing foods can cause them a lot of digestive upset. Lactase supplements, or milk to which lactase has been added, help to break down the lactose and decrease symptoms of lactose intolerance such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
This fancy-sounding enzyme is helpful for those who have trouble digesting “gassy” foods such as beans and Brassica vegetables (for example, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli). Alpha-galactosidase allows for better breakdown of the carbohydrates found in these foods so that they cause less bloating and gas. ?
Both lactase and alpha-galactosidase are available in a variety of over-the-counter supplements.
Enzymes, beyond food digestion
Although facilitating digestion is what most enzyme supplements are promoted for, a newer class of enzyme supplements has quickly gained popularity over the past several years: anti-inflammatory enzymes.
For the most part, these are proteolytic enzymes—but instead of being used to help digest protein in your meals, they are being used to help reduce pain and inflammation and to support tissue healing. Clinical experience, as well as preliminary clinical trials, has shown that these can actually be quite helpful, particularly for pain associated with exercise-related muscle soreness and recovery, sinus, or dental complaints.
Here are some examples of situations where these enzyme supplements may be useful.
A protein-digesting enzyme derived from pineapple, bromelain has been used for a very long time as a natural treatment for pain and inflammation. Clinical trials have now provided some support for this traditional use. Trials have demonstrated benefits of bromelain in treating painful conditions such as sinusitis and recovery from dental surgery.
In the case of dental care, bromelain has been found to help reduce swelling after wisdom tooth removal. If sinus pain is an issue, bromelain may also be worth trying; one study of more than 100 children found that bromelain supplements were helpful in reducing sinusitis symptoms, with supplemented children recovering faster than those who received standard care.
Other proteolytic enzymes
In addition to bromelain, other proteolytic enzymes are showing promise for the treatment of pain and injury.
Muscle soreness and recovery
Some small but interesting studies have shown that supplements containing a few different types of proteolytic enzymes may help to reduce muscle soreness and support faster healing of muscles after intense exercise, including faster recovery of muscle strength.
Digestive enzymes may also help facilitate wound healing. One small study, for example, using proteolytic enzymes for seven days looked at the effects on wound healing compared to placebo pills. Wounds were shown to heal sooner in almost 80 percent of the participants taking the enzymes.
Doses used in these studies vary but are usually in the order of a few capsules a day, depending on the strength of the product, making them a fairly convenient option. There are many different enzyme supplements out there, so consult a knowledgeable health care practitioner to help make sure enzyme supplements are right for you and to help you choose the one(s) appropriate for you.
GI danger symptoms
It is important to seek the advice of a health care practitioner if you develop ongoing, unusual, or severe digestive symptoms. Here are some of the “red flag” symptoms:
- appearance of blood in the stool
- black, tarry stools
- grey, clay-coloured, or yellow stool
- chronic loss of appetite
- chronic constipation or diarrhea
- sudden and severe abdominal pain or chronic, ongoing abdominal pain
- chronic bloating or feeling of fullness in the abdomen
Cautions around digestive enzymes
Overall, digestive enzymes are considered to be safe for most people; however, some concerns exist.
- Those who have pineapple or papaya allergies should avoid bromelain or papain supplements, respectively.
- Avoid prolonged use. For average, healthy individuals, digestive enzymes are best used on occasion and as needed.
- If you have a history of stomach ulcers, consult your health care practitioner before using proteolytic enzymes.
- Those who are taking blood thinners or diabetes medications, are planning surgery, or are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult their health care practitioner before using proteolytic enzymes.
It’s always best to check with a health care practitioner to make sure a new supplement is right for you.