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What are Digestive Enzymes?

Scientifically speaking, enzymes are any protein that is able to speed up (or catalyse) the rate of a biological reaction within the body. In the world of bodybuilding and sports nutrition, enzymes generally refer to a group of digestive aids that can be added to supplements in order to increase their digestibility.

Where Do Enzymes Come From?

Enzymes are naturally produced in the body by various organs. Amylases are one group of enzymes used in carbohydrate digestion and are produced by the salivary glands and pancreas. Proteases are responsible for protein digestion and are present in various parts of the digestive system such as stomach and small intestine. Lipases are for lipid or fat digestion, and can be made in the pancreas and liver. There are of course a range of supplemental enzymes that can be extracted from animal or microbial sources, as well as plant derived enzymes such as bromelain, a protein digesting enzyme found in pineapples.

Digestive Enzyme Benefits

The functioning of digestive organs change as people and animals age, resulting in a decreased ability to adapt to dietary changes (Greenberg & Holt, 1986). Therefore, supplementation may be able to assist in the digestion of certain foods and supplements. This is especially beneficial for those who suffer from enzymic deficiencies and can significantly improve digestion (Taylor et al, 2010). A fairly common condition that some people suffer from is lactose intolerance. This is a situation in which the body no longer produces lactase, the enzyme needed to breakdown the lactose sugar in dairy products. Sufferers experience stomach upsets and related discomforts. The addition of lactase and related enzymes to lactose containing products has been shown to significantly improve the lactose digestion of people suffering from lactose intolerance (Rosado et al, 1984).

Digestive Enzyme Negatives & Side Effects

Enzymes are generally considered to be safe for use. They are in fact widely used in medical practice for patients suffering from digestive disorders. However, care should be taken in instances where people have allergies to the source from which the enzyme is derived, eg pigs, pineapples, microbes, etc. Excessive enzyme dosage results in temporary gastrointestinal upset, which will resolve when use is discontinued (Roxas, 2008).

Enzymes Recommended Dose & Ingredient Timing

The recommended doses for enzymes vary greatly depending on the source of the enzyme, its activity factor, the application, and the type of enzyme. For example, in a clinical setting, 200 to 2000 mg bromelain, 25,000 – 40,000 IU porcine lipase, and 18,750 – 30,000 IU funal lipase per day have been found to be effective for those suffering from digestive disorders (Roxas, 2008).

Given that digestive enzymes are intended to aid digestion, timing is important. They should be consumed soon before, or together with a meal, food, or supplement.

Digestive Enzymes & Supplements

Enzymes can be found as stand-alone digestive aids, but they can also be found as an ingredient in a range of supplements. Most commonly, they are added to all types of protein powders, which either pre-digest the protein to a degree, or to aid in the actual digestive process after consumption. Enzymes can also be found in some and some antioxidant supplements. When you're looking for digestive enzymes, remember that there are many different types of enzymes that can be used in carbohydrate, protein, and fat digestion. These include:

  • Digestive enzymes for protein: bromelain, pepsin, protease I, protease II, protease III
  • Digestive enzymes for carbohydrates: amylase, amylase II, cellulase, galactosidate, glucoamylase, invertase, lactase, maltase, pectinase, phytase, xylanase
  • Digestive enzymes for fats: lipase

Stacking Digestive Enzymes

Enzymes can be stacked with all foods and macronutrient based supplements.

Greenberg & Holt (1986), Influence of aging upon pancreatic digestive enzymes. Digestive Diseases and Science, 31: 970-977
Rosado et al (1984), Enzyme replacement therapy for primary adult lactase deficiency. Effective reduction of lactose malabsorption and milk intolerance by direct addition of beta-galactosidase to milk at mealtime. Gastroenterology, 87: 1072-1082
Roxas (2008), The role of enzyme supplementation in digestive disorders. Altern Med Rev, 13: 307-314
Taylor et al (2010), Systematic review: efficacy and safety of pancreatic enzyme supplements for exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Aliment Pharmacol Ther, 31: 57–72

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