Who Needs Digestive Enzymes?April 2018
By Michael Downey
In 1983, a well-informed Life Extension® member recommended a digestive enzyme formula that had been around for many decades.
We published an article about this enzyme product (N-Zymes®) and many of our readers reported reduced digestive discomforts when taking it before meals.
As we age, our digestive tract loses the ability to tolerate the effects of excess calories, especially the fried, fast foods that you see endlessly advertised.
We encourage our readers to consume Mediterranean-style diets and whole plant foods that are easy to digest AND better for our health.
Even when eating healthy, many people encounter some form of gastrointestinal upset that digestive enzymes can help ameliorate.
Over the years, more concentrated and broader-spectrum enzyme blends have become available as supplements.
This article describes the role that enzymes play in digestive health.
If you find yourself reaching for drugs such as Alka-Seltzer or Pepto-Bismol to relieve chronic digestive problems, you could have bigger health problems than you realize.
Those over-the-counter drugs might temporarily ease your symptoms, but they do nothing to target the potential underlying causes of the problem—and they don’t improve the body’s ability to digest food.
If digestion is incomplete, the body cannot extract all the nutrients in our food. Aside from causing bloating and gas, this can lead to inadequate uptake of critical nutrients—and even malnutrition among older adults.
Two of the main underlying causes of poor digestion are the age-related decline of digestive enzymes and microbiome imbalances.1-5
It is essential to maintain a healthy balance of digestive enzymes to optimize healthy digestion and get the most nutrition out of your meals.
Digestive enzymes and probiotics can do what no commercial drug can: address the underlying causes of gastrointestinal distress and poor nutrient absorption.
In doing so, you can not only help prevent abdominal discomfort, but also ensure that you’re getting the nutrients necessary for optimal health.
Enzymes and Digestion
Food provides us with nutrients that fuel life-sustaining energy.
This fuel, however, needs to be “refined” in order for the body to utilize it—and that’s where digestion comes in.
During digestion, the body breaks down food, extracting the energy and nutrients it needs. An important part of this process is accomplished by the deconstructive activities performed by specialized enzymes.
But, as we age, our body produces fewer of the enzymes necessary to properly break down food.6 Without these enzymes, undigested food passes into the colon, where it causes bloating, gas, diarrhea, and cramping.1,2 Worse, without the action of these powerful enzymes, our bodies can’t absorb the nutrients we need for optimal health. In this way, poorly digested food contributes to the malnutrition that threatens older people who are already facing reduced appetite and changes in muscle and fat stores.6,7
The increase in digestive discomfort and food intolerances is a clear indicator that our bodies just can’t keep up. Fortunately, it’s possible to replace the enzymes necessary for optimal health and digestion.
Supplementing With Digestive Enzymes
Adding enzymes to the diet is not a new idea. It’s been over 70 years since scientists first noted that supplementary enzymes could restore rapid digestion of foods in the stomach.8
Since then, human studies have confirmed the beneficial effects from various types of digestive enzyme supplements.9-11 For example, in a larger, placebo-controlled study, patients taking a digestive enzyme supplement reported fewer episodes of abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, bloating, flatulence, and appetite loss than those not taking the supplement.10
Each major food group has specific enzymes responsible for its breakdown. A deficiency in any one of these enzymes can lead to a wide range of common intestinal troubles.
For optimal digestion, it is important to consider supplementing with digestive enzymes that assist in the breakdown of all classes of food, including starch, proteins, fats, cellulose, and milk.
As we age, our pancreas produces less of the protease enzymes necessary for breaking down protein. This deficiency leaves protein molecules or fragments undigested, leading to a host of potentially toxic molecules.12-14 Worst of all, undigested protein has been associated with colon cancer.15
Fortunately, using supplemental proteases eases the body’s burden of producing these complex enzymes entirely on its own. Research has shown that animals supplemented with proteases experienced enhanced digestion.16 In humans, supplementation with protease reduced the allergenic potential of meat products.17
In addition, protease supplementation may be useful in reducing the symptoms associated with gluten and casein intolerances.17
Another food group that can become problematic with age is dairy.
Lactase, the enzyme responsible for breaking down milk sugar (called lactose), is often deficient in older people.18 This may lead to cramps, bloating, gas, and diarrhea after consuming milk products.19 The symptoms are often so severe that victims suffer miserably before they figure out that dairy foods are the problem.
Cutting out dairy might prevent the unpleasant symptoms, but it can lead to insufficient calcium intake, which boosts the risk of osteoporosis and subsequent fractures.20,21
Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between your abdominal comfort and your bones. Supplementation with lactase reduces the severity of abdominal cramping, belching, flatulence, bloating, and diarrhea in individuals with lactase insufficiency.22
Lactase provides specific support for proper dairy digestion, helping prevent after-meal discomfort—and ultimately improving overall nutritional status.
Lipases are enzymes that break down the fat we eat into individual fatty acids and closely related substances. They also help the body absorb vital fat-soluble nutrients such as essential fatty acids and vitamins D, K, E, and A.9,23
Without sufficient lipase, incompletely digested fats can pass through the GI tract, where they can produce greasy, fatty stools, and cramping. Even worse, since the body can’t absorb undigested fats, a deficiency in lipase enzymes can also lead to malnutrition because it prevents the body from being able to absorb valuable fat-soluble vitamins.
Supplementing with lipase helps ensure that fats are properly digested. Pancreatic lipase enzymes have been used for years in people with pancreatic insufficiency (a condition in which the pancreas doesn’t produce enough enzymes) to assist with digestion,24 but we now know that they can be beneficial in healthy people as well.25
In a study in which people ate high-fat food, patients who supplemented with pancreatic lipase enzymes experienced significant reductions in bloating, gas, and fullness compared to those taking a placebo.25
High-fiber foods like broccoli, asparagus, and beans are notorious for causing excessive gas. These embarrassing symptoms keep many people from eating these foods—which also prevents them from obtaining their health benefits.
Fiber is vital for healthy digestion because it feeds beneficial organisms in the colon. These bacteria use fiber to produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids that play intriguing but critical roles in normal immune function, modulating genes associated with longevity, preventing cancer and metabolic syndrome, treating intestinal disease and maintaining colon health.26-32
The problem is that humans don’t make enzymes that digest plant fiber (also called cellulose).
Fortunately, there’s a way to get plenty of fiber and digest it well, which can help avoid the gas and bloating problems sometimes associated with a high-fiber diet—and once again, the answer is in supplemental enzymes. The enzyme cellulase breaks down cellulose, the indigestible polysaccharide in dietary fiber.33 This allows for smoother digestion of tough vegetable fiber.
Amylase enzymes are responsible for digesting carbohydrates and starches.
A deficiency in amylases causes undigested carbohydrate molecules to pass on to the colon. There, gut organisms break them down, literally fermenting them to produce carbon dioxide and water, which leads to cramping, flatulence, and diarrhea.34-36
Having ample amylase enzymes promotes complete digestion of carbohydrates and starches, preventing the unpleasant effects of fermentation.
Bromelain, extracted from pineapple stem and fruit, contains powerful proteases (protein-digesting enzymes),37 making this compound an effective digestive aid.
Its benefits were seen in a study of adults with chronic pancreatic insufficiency, a condition in which the pancreas doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes. Initially, these subjects were unable to fully digest and absorb fats and proteins. But supplementing with a pancreatic enzyme product that contained bromelain improved digestion and absorption of both protein and fat.38
Probiotic Support for Digestion
Having ample digestive enzymes is only one piece of the digestion puzzle. The populations of bacteria in the gut are also integral components of the overall digestion process. If there is an imbalance in the gut microbiome, it can lead to gastrointestinal distress.39
Supplementing with probiotics can help restore balance to the gut microbiome—which can help reduce uncomfortable abdominal symptoms and promote healthy intestinal function.40,41
One strain has been found to be especially beneficial: the MTCC 5856 strain of Bacillus coagulans. This particular strain is coated in a tough outer layer that resists digestion in the stomach and small intestine.41,42 As a result, it is delivered directly to the large intestine intact, where it can set up new colonies that can grow and flourish.41-43
Multiple studies have shown that supplementing with B. coagulans benefits seemingly contradictory symptoms—constipation and diarrhea.
In a study of people with chronic constipation, 70% of subjects had improvement in abdominal distension (that’s when the abdomen swells because of gas or fluid)—and were able to have normal bowel movements after supplementing with B. coagulans for up to 10 days.42
Its benefits in those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are even more impressive. This condition can cause diarrhea and constipation, abdominal discomfort, gas, and bloating—and it is notoriously difficult to treat.
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, IBS patients took tablets containing 2 billion spores of MTCC 5856 B. coagulans daily. The probiotic led to improvements on every score tested, including those assessing symptoms, abdominal discomfort, stool quality, and physicians’ overall assessment. It also led to a significant decrease in clinical symptoms such as bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and stool frequency.44
It takes an estimated four hours for this probiotic to take hold and start to grow in the intestine. But over time, it is gradually excreted from the body, which means it needs to be replenished with fresh supplementation.40-42
Incomplete digestion can prevent the body from extracting critical nutrients from food, threatening overall health and causing bloating, gas, and general discomfort.
Diminishing levels of digestive enzymes are the common cause of poor digestion. In addition, an imbalance in intestinal bacteria causes nutrient malabsorption, while also triggering inflammation and food sensitivities.
When taken orally before a meal, supplemental digestive enzymes, combined with the probiotic B. coagulans, boost the body’s natural ability to break down food into its life-giving and healthful constituents while preventing gastrointestinal distress.
If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.
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- Laugier R, Bernard JP, Berthezene P, et al. Changes in pancreatic exocrine secretion with age: pancreatic exocrine secretion does decrease in the elderly. Digestion. 1991;50(3-4):202-11.
- Bures J, Cyrany J, Kohoutova D, et al. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth syndrome. World J Gastroenterol. 2010;16(24):2978-90.
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- Lin HC. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth: a framework for understanding irritable bowel syndrome. Jama. 2004;292(7):852-8.
- Remond D, Shahar DR, Gille D, et al. Understanding the gastrointestinal tract of the elderly to develop dietary solutions that prevent malnutrition. Oncotarget. 2015;6(16):13858-98.
- Evans WJ. Exercise and nutritional needs of elderly people: effects on muscle and bone. Gerodontology. 1998;15(1):15-24.
- Howell E, National Enzyme Company C. The status of food enzymes in digestion and metabolism. Chicago, Ill.: National Enzyme Co.; 1946.
- Available at: http://www.klaire.com/images/MakingSenseEZM.pdf. Accessed January 10, 2018.
- Karani S, Kataria MS, Barber AE. A double-blind clinical trial with a digestive enzyme product. Br J Clin Pract. 1971;25(8):375-7.
- Glade MJ, Kendra D, Kaminski MV, Jr. Improvement in protein utilization in nursing-home patients on tube feeding supplemented with an enzyme product derived from Aspergillus niger and bromelain. Nutrition. 2001;17(4):348-50.
- Larque E, Sabater-Molina M, Zamora S. Biological significance of dietary polyamines. Nutrition. 2007;23(1):87-95.
- Prester L. Biogenic amines in fish, fish products and shellfish: a review. Food Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess. 2011;28(11):1547-60.
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- Kim E, Coelho D, Blachier F. Review of the association between meat consumption and risk of colorectal cancer. Nutr Res. 2013;33(12):983-94.
- Eun JS, Beauchemin KA. Effects of a proteolytic feed enzyme on intake, digestion, ruminal fermentation, and milk production. J Dairy Sci. 2005;88(6):2140-53.
- Koch S, Anthonsen D, Skovbjerg H, et al. On the role of dipeptidyl peptidase IV in the digestion of an immunodominant epitope in celiac disease. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2003;524:181-7.
- Lee MF, Krasinski SD. Human adult-onset lactase decline: an update. Nutr Rev. 1998;56(1 Pt 1):1-8.
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- Newcomer AD, Hodgson SF, McGill DB, et al. Lactase deficiency: prevalence in osteoporosis. Ann Intern Med. 1978;89(2):218-20.
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- Sanders SW, Tolman KG, Reitberg DP. Effect of a single dose of lactase on symptoms and expired hydrogen after lactose challenge in lactose-intolerant subjects. Clin Pharm. 1992;11(6):533-8.
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- Dominguez-Munoz JE, Iglesias-Garcia J, Iglesias-Rey M, et al. Effect of the administration schedule on the therapeutic efficacy of oral pancreatic enzyme supplements in patients with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency: a randomized, three-way crossover study. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2005;21(8):993-1000.
- Suarez F, Levitt MD, Adshead J, et al. Pancreatic supplements reduce symptomatic response of healthy subjects to a high fat meal. Dig Dis Sci. 1999;44(7):1317-21.
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