What Are Digestive Enzymes?
What is digestion?
On the surface, digestion refers to the process of breaking down food into small enough pieces so that the nutrients can be absorbed by our digestive tract. This means turning that amazing meal you just had into molecules so tiny you’d need a high-powered microscope just to see them. How does the GI tract accomplish this incredible feat? Well, it uses a few different tools, but the ones we are most interested in at the moment are all those enzymes.
What are digestive enzymes?
In short, enzymes are super cool molecules that assist in making chemical reactions happen. Our bodies make a ton of different enzymes to do all sorts of jobs, but digestive enzymes specifically are tasked with breaking down food. You can think of them almost like little microscopic scissors cutting our food into tinier and tinier pieces, until they are small enough to be absorbed.
Different digestive enzymes for different foods
Something some people may not realize about enzymes is that they have extremely specific jobs. Think, assembly line workers who are stuck doing the same exact task day in and day out. Because each enzyme is so highly specialized and not so great at the whole multitasking thing, it’s of course necessary that there are a huge variety of them to make sure all the digestive work can be completed.
Broadly speaking, digestive enzymes can be broken down into three separate groups depending on the type of macronutrient (protein, fat, and carbs) that they work on. Check out the table below to get an idea of what each of these categories of enzymes are up to, and some examples of digestive enzymes made in the human body.1
The healthy type - fiber
So far we’ve talked about the digestive enzymes our body makes, but it turns out that there are quite a few others we don’t actually make. This means that there are going to be certain types of foods that don’t actually get broken down completely, and go partially undigested. But don’t freak out! In most cases this is totally normal. I mean, ever heard of a little thing called fiber?
Put in the simplest terms, fiber is just plant material that goes undigested in our GI tract and has a ton of health benefits. 2Even though we don’t have the enzymes to turn fiber into energy, it’s really important to our short- and long-term health that we eat fiber every day.345
The problematic types - maldigestion & malabsorption
While a certain amount of incomplete digestion is normal and healthy, there does come a point in which it can become a problem for some people. This is where the terms maldigestion and malabsorption come into play.
- Maldigestion is where someone has some sort of issue breaking down food in the digestive tract
- Whereas malabsorption refers to an issue with the digested food being absorbed by the gut.6
Although these terms can sound rather scary, in general, these conditions only become a problem when symptoms become intolerable and/or they result in inadequate nutrient absorption.
Symptoms will differ a lot depending on the type and severity of the maldigestive and/or malabsorptive problem, but may include nausea, bloating, distention, pain, diarrhea, constipation, muscle wasting, and weight loss. If it goes on long enough, you can also start to see signs of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. 7Symptoms can overlap quite a bit with other diseases and conditions, including IBS, so identifying those with a maldigestion or malabsorption can be challenging.
Causes of maldigestion and malabsorption are numerous, and definitely not always the result of some sort of enzyme deficiency or inadequacy, but it can be, which is partially why there is a lot of interest in enzyme supplements.
Do Digestive Enzymes Help With IBS?
2 reasons to take digestive enzymes
There are a couple situations where supplementing with enzymes may be helpful for some people with IBS.
- The first would be when there is an actual enzyme deficiency, in which replacing the enzymes may resolve the symptoms of concern.
- The second situation would be when someone doesn’t necessarily have a diagnosable enzyme deficiency, but still benefits in some way by the addition of extra enzymes, or supplementation with enzymes that the body doesn’t normally make.
Which enzymes have been studied in IBS?
To date, only a handful of digestive enzymes have been studied to some extent in IBS. These include:
- Lactase (beta-galactosidase)
- Sucrase (invertase)
- Pancreatic enzymes (amylase, lipase, proteases)
- Alpha-galactosidase (more commonly referred to as Beano)
We’ve done deep dives into each of these enzymes, so feel free to head over to each of those articles to learn more.
What about all the other enzymes?
What about all the other enzymes on that long list on the back of your digestive enzyme supplement label?
We hate to break it to you, but it turns out they haven’t been studied. More precisely, they have not been individually studied in IBS (or any related conditions) and published in scientific, peer reviewed journals. At least not any we could find (and boy did we look). Now, does a lack of research mean they don’t help? No, not necessarily. It just means we really don’t know what they’ll do, and can’t make evidence-based recommendations just yet.
In the table below we’ve listed a few of the unstudied enzymes we’ve seen in various digestive enzyme blends on the market and a basic description of what they do.
Based on our research, the risk of adverse events from taking digestive enzymes is pretty low for most people, making them a relatively safe supplement to try out. With that said, we definitely do still recommend that you get the okay from your doctor before starting a digestive enzyme supplement, whether or not it has been studied yet.