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About 20 percent of the U.S. population is known to have a digestive issue, or about 60 to 70 million people — and this percentage continues to grow. A lack of enzymes in the digestive system is one of the main contributors to these issues. Symptoms can be as subtle as burping or gas following meals, or more extreme like constant diarrhea or periodic pain.

Many factors can cause enzyme insufficiency, including injury, stress, aging, and certain diseases, like pancreatitis. Digestive enzyme insufficiency makes it more difficult for your body to break down food and can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, hyperthyroidism, Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease.

Read on for everything to know about digestive enzymes and their benefits.

What Are Digestive Enzymes?

Enzymes are proteins that speed up the rate of chemical reactions in the body. You use more than 5,000 different enzymes every day, and they’re responsible so many bodily processes, including your thoughts and the thickness of your blood.

relatively small group of those some 5,000 enzymes convert the food you eat to nutrients that fuel and build your body. These digestive enzymes are responsible for breaking down protein, fat, and carbohydrates and converting them into nutrition for your body. Without them, however, your food passes through undigested. Along the way, the food can destroy the lining of your intestines, causing immune reactions and inflammation.

Digestive enzymes fall into three different categories based on the macronutrient they act on:

1. Proteases and peptidases: Convert protein to peptides and amino acids. They also act on other parts of the body to support normal immune function, inflammation levels, tissue repair, and blood viscosity.

Common proteases and peptidases: Bromelain, Pancreatin, Papain, Peptidase, Protease, Trypsin

2. Carbohydrases: Convert carbohydrates to glucose and fructose.

Common carbohydrases:Alpha-galactosidase, Amylase, Cellulase, Diastase, Glucoamylase, Invertase, Lactase, Phytase

1. Lipases: Convert fat to fatty acids.

Common lipases: Lingual Lipase, Gastric Lipase, Pancrealipase

Proteases and Peptidases (Proteolytic Enzymes)

Proteases (also known as proteolytic enzymes) act on protein in the digestive system. However, they also affect many other areas of the body.

The average healthy adult breaks down 250 to 300 grams of protein throughout the body every day. Your body does this to replace damaged or aged tissues with new ones. Proteolytic enzymes play an important role in this process. They also help maintain healthy inflammation levels, modulate pain, and support normal immune function.

Because the body can produce a limited number of proteolytic enzymes, it’s possible for demand to exceed supply. Following an injury or extreme physical stress, proteolytic enzymes can be directed to the tissue repair, leaving the digestive system without enough to complete digestion.

This could be why athletes often deal with digestive issues. If they don’t get extra proteolytic enzymes through food or supplements, their available enzymes take part in tissue repair, leaving them short on what they need for proper digestion. On the other hand, in some people, enzymes are directed to digestion, leaving the rest of their body short. In this case, inflammation could get out of hand, or tissues and joints could get irritated.

When supplemented in the diet, proteolytic enzymes have been shown to reduce stiffness and exercise-related soreness.

European practitioners have been known to also recommend proteolytic enzymes to support overall health, maintain normal inflammatory levels, to assist with recovery from injury or surgery, to relieve symptoms of arthritis, and to complement cancer therapy.

Because food sensitivities are usually an immune reaction to a certain protein that is not digested properly, increasing your enzyme intake may help with food sensitivities.

For example, proline is an amino acid found in wheat and casein. Without the enzymes necessary to break down proline, it enters the small intestine intact, and can damage the tissues of the intestines and create an autoimmune response.

Proline can also have opioid-like effects on the nervous system. Autism and proline seem to have a strong connection, which is why parents of autistic children are often encouraged to keep their kids on a strict gluten-free and dairy-free diet.

Two specific proteases, prolyl endopeptidase (PEP), and dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV) have been shown to help break down proline and could help reduce the effects of this amino acid on the body.

However, even enzyme supplements don’t seem to be powerful enough to completely breakdown prolines. If you’re gluten-sensitive or allergic to gluten, you’re better off staying 100 percent gluten-free.

Proteases and peptidases help digest protein when it reaches the stomach and in the small intestine.

For proteolytic enzymes to effectively convert dietary protein to peptides and amino acids in the stomach, the stomach must maintain a highly acidic environment. If you have low stomach acid, due to genetics, stress, or medications, you basically make your proteolytic enzymes inactive.

As a result, protein can pass from the stomach to the small intestine without proper digestion, which can cause food sensitivities and increase inflammation. This is why acid-reducing drugs are not intended for long-term use.

Learn more: “High Protein Diets: Health Benefits and Controversies


As the name suggests, carbohydrases speed the breakdown of carbohydrates. Amylase helps convert starch to glucose. Cellulase helps break down some plant fiber.

The two most researched carbohydrases are lactase and alpha-galactosidase.

Lactase helps you break down lactose, or milk sugar. Most adults are deficient in this enzyme, which creates a double whammy against dairy. Casein, one of the dairy proteins that contains proline mentioned above — and then most people don’t have lactase to break down lactose. Lactose consumption often leads to bloating, gas, or diarrhea. Two-thirds of the adult population totally lacks the lactase enzyme.

If you choose to consume dairy and you have issues with lactose, supplementing with lactase may help you avoid some of the digestive issues.

Also, if you can find raw, unpasteurized dairy, it’ll have the enzymes in it to help you digest it. Lactase is destroyed during the processing of conventional milk.

Alpha-galactosidase assists with the breakdown of legumes, cruciferous vegetables, and some grains. If you’re low on this enzyme, you’ll likely experience gas following meals with these foods.

Carbohydrases act on carbohydrates in the mouth, the upper part of the stomach, and the small intestine.


Low levels of lipase enzymes are seen in those with late-stage pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis. Supplemental lipase is often recommended in those with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.

Of the three enzyme types, decreased lipase production has the potential to be the most problematic. If you do not properly digest fat, it will completely pass through you, a condition known as steatorrhea.

Pancreatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, Zollinger-Elilison syndrome, giardiasis, and Graves’ disease, or hyperthyroidism can all lead to steatorrhea.

Symptoms of steatorrhea include diarrhea, foul-smelling stool, weight loss, jaundice, distended stomach, abdominal pain, and/or gas and rumbling of the stomach.

Not only do you lose the nutrition fat provides, but you’re also unable to absorb essential fatty acids (omega-3, omega-6) and fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Enzyme replacement often resolves, or at least reduces, these issues.

How to Increase Digestive Enzyme Levels

Raw foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, raw milk and butter, and even raw meat contain their own enzymes. However, most of the foods in the modern diet are cooked and even sterilized, destroying the enzymes the foods once had. Here are some tips to add those enzymes back into your diet:

  • Eat a mix of raw and cooked vegetables (eating only raw vegetables can also be problematic). This can be as simple as snacking on a handful of carrots or celery sticks.
  • When eating meat, less cooking (but to a safe temperature, of course) is better. A well-done steak will be much more difficult to digest than a steak cooked medium-rare.

That being said, it is unlikely to be able to get enough enzymes from food alone, which is why supplementing with digestive enzymes can be beneficial.

The other important thing to be aware of is that we all must also face an aging body. Age causes a reduction in enzyme production.

Practitioners and researchers often mention that maintaining optimal enzyme levels can slow the aging process. It makes sense when you understand how important enzymes are to getting the nutrients out of the foods we eat. Increasing your nutrient intake would likely support better health.

Supplementing With Digestive Enzymes

To make up for the gap between what we need and what the body can produce on its own, many people can benefit from a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme supplement. “Broad-spectrum” means it includes a mix of proteases and peptidases, carbohydrases, and lipases.

For example, Life Time’s Digestive Enzyme Complex is formulated to provide a comprehensive blend of digestive enzymes that help your body properly break down and utilize proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in an efficient manner, and may also benefit individuals with indigestion. This broad-spectrum digestive support formula that includes proteases, carbohydrases, and lipases can help you access the nourishment from the food you eat.

Note: Since proteolytic enzymes have the potential to thin the blood (which is normally a good thing), they may amplify the effects of a prescription blood thinner. If you use a blood thinner, check with your doctor before taking digestive enzymes.

Keep the conversation going.

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The Life Time Health Team

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