Your body breaks down your food using molecular “scissors” called enzymes. Certain enzymes are more targeted at certain macronutrients. There are many enzymes designed to break down different types of carbohydrates, and there are also some plant-derived enzymes in commercial enzyme formulations as well.
Here’s what each of those enzyme names do, and what to look for in a supplement.
Protease is the general term for the group of enzymes that break down protein into its constituent amino acids, so that the body can absorb them. Those produced by the body include pepsin (in the stomach, activated by hydrochloric acid), and then trypsin and chymotrypsin produced by the pancreas and released into the small intestine. There are additional proteases on the brush border of the small intestine to finish the job.
Probably the two most common protease enzymes found in commercial enzyme formulas are bromelain and papain—extracted from pineapple and papaya, respectively. These do work great for assisting the body in the breakdown of protein — or, taken away from meals on an empty stomach, they can reduce systemic inflammation and break down biofilms.
Your saliva contains amylase, an enzyme that breaks starches (including wheat, corn, potatoes, and rice) into sugars. Amylase enters digestion again in the small intestine, continuing the process. If amylase doesn’t adequately do its job, you can end up with fermentation of carbs, and SIBO.
Other carb enzymes include alpha-galactosidase, which breaks down the stubborn sugars in the raffinose family found in cruciferous veggies and beans. (You definitely want this digested before it gets to your colon, as undigested raffinose is responsible for beans’ dubious reputation. Galactosidase is therefore the enzyme found in Beano.)
Lactase is responsible for breaking down lactose (the sugar in milk). Insufficient lactase is what causes lactose intolerance.
And finally, sucrase breaks table sugar down into its constituent parts.
All of these enzymes can be found in commercial preparations.
Lipase is the enzyme responsible for helping break down triglycerides into its constituent parts, fatty acids and glycerol. Bile then helps the body absorb these components, so that fat can get turned into energy.
Should You Take An Enzyme?
If you’re young, digestion is generally good, and you’re in parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode when you eat, then they shouldn’t be necessary. Your pancreas should be releasing plenty of enzymes to take care of digestion for you.
But you do need to be in parasympathetic “rest and digest” mode in order for adequate release to occur. If you tend to eat on-the-go, or eat while feeling anxious or harried, digestion is likely sub-optimal. It’s best to sit down, slow down, chew your food, and savor it—but if this isn’t possible for whatever reason, an enzyme can help.
If you specifically have trouble digesting a particular type of food, and you don’t want to give it up, it might be best to choose an enzyme just for that item and take it only when you need it. Most commonly, lactase helps digest lactose; but galactosidase also helps with beans and cruciferous veggies, while dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV) helps break down gluten. (But don’t try this if you have Celiac — in that case you need to completely avoid it.)
Finally, as we age, all digestive “juices” decrease, including enzyme output. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll need one—but if you notice you’re beginning to develop a little more difficulty with digestion in general over time, you might try an enzyme and see if it helps.