Demystifying Digestive Enzymes

I am not an enzyme expert. I encourage you to do some research on your own. To get you started, here is a simple overview of what digestive enzymes are and why people suggest using them. If you are looking for a clear-cut, indepth scientific explanation, check out How Stuff Works and do a search on digestive enzymes.

What are Enzymes?
A Plethora of Enzymes
Before You Buy
My Blogs on the Topic


What are Enzymes?

Simply stated, enzymes are proteins made by cells in our bodies and all living organisms (including meat and raw vegetables). Enzymes play a vital role when it comes to nutrition. The term ‘nutrition’ is tossed around all the time, but what is nutrition really?

Nutrition is our body's ability to consume, absorb and carry nutrients into cells. Nutrition refers to metabolizing nutrients and eliminating the waste. These nutrients include:

  • Amino Acids
  • Minerals
  • Vitamins
  • carbohydrates
  • Lipids
  • Proteins
  • Water

Enzymes are responsible for digesting, absorbing, transporting, metabolizing, and eliminating the waste of these nutrients.

Fruits, vegetables and meat contain enzymes that assist us during the digestive process. The problem is that when foods are cooked or processed, they lose a great deal (if not all) of their helpful enzymes. Though an all-raw diet is an interesting idea (and yes, there are many supporters of eating all raw, all the time), it’s not practical (or appealing) to a majority of people.

Without these enzymes, it makes it harder to digest and absorb the nutrients contained within the food we eat. For people who aren't making enough of their own digestive enzymes or who suffer from malabsorbtion, this could cause problems (bloating, gas, and cramping to name a few symptoms).

Back to top


A Plethora of Enzymes

There are different kinds of digestive enzymes, each one with a specific job. The big four that come up most often seem to be:

  • Protease, which breaks down protein found in meats, nuts, eggs, and cheese. Parasites, fungal forms and bacteria are also protein. Viruses are cell parasites consisting of nucleic acids covered by a protein film. Enzymes can break down undigested protein, cellular debris, and toxins in the blood, sparing the immune system this task. Proteases are also believed to be the 'cleaners and healers' of the intestinal lining.
  • Amylase, which breaks down carbohydrates, sugars and starch, could also help with seasonal allergies and skin reactions as there are claims it has antihistamine qualities.
  • Lipase, which breaks down fat found in most dairy products, nuts, oils, and meat. Here's a nice article on Lipase from the University of Maryland Medical Center (it makes note of how Lipase is good for IBS, but the more I read, the more I am getting the feeling that all of the enzymes listed here could be good for it depending on what foods trigger you).
  • and Cellulase, which breaks down cellulose / plant fibre – often needed by those with food allergies. Said to fight candidiasis, IBS and malabsorbtion syndrome (impaired absorption of nutrients, vitamins, or minerals from the diet by the lining of the small intestine).

These types of enzymes can be further broken down into specific digestive enzymes and there are other types. For example, the following are all types of Amylase (there are many more):

  • Lactase, which breaks down lactose-dairy
  • Maltase and Sucrase, which break down food sugars
  • and Alpha-glactosidase, which facilitates digestion of beans, legumes, seeds, roots, soy products, and underground stems

If you are interested, here is a list of different Amylase and Protease enzymes and what they do.

So which should you take? How often? In what amount? Well, as always, the answer isn't simple. The idea is to match your personal needs with the digestive enzymes. And then once that's decided, you need to figure out if you want to use it only for digestion (with a meal) or as a therapeutic aid (between example of this would be cellulase and proteases taken together to fight yeast).

Here's an example of the theories behind taking enzymes (specifically, using different types of proteases) in between meals as Enzyme Therapy . Remember, this article is only a drop in the bucket. Read more and weigh your options.

It's said that certain enzymes help with leaky gut, candidiasis, arthritis and even migraines. It's not meant as a cure for intolerances/allergies, but works as an assistant.

Back to top


Before You Buy

Things to check before you buy:

  • If there are fillers in the capsules and what they are
  • Plant enzymes vs animal derived enzymes (most often from the pancreas of slaughter house animals and, some argue, are less effective. I read that these will usually be weighted in mg's or the letters USP, but I have found that to be inconsistent so check with the manufacturer).
  • Amount of the ideal enzymes vs less effective enzymes
  • Concentration (units) of enzymes in each capsule (making the difference between taking 3-6 a day, and 12 -18 a day). Tell-tale sign that the pills don't contain enough of a good product: enzymes are measured in mg's, not the specific units associated with it (e.g. HUT).

Food Chemical Codex (FCC) approved measurements are:

Protease - HUT (Hemoglobin Unit Tyrosine base)
Lipase - FCCFIP (Lipase Units)
Amylase - DU (Dextrinizing Units)
Cellulase - CU (Cellulase Unit)
Invertase - INVU (Invertase Activity Unit)
Lactase - ALU (Lactase Unit)
Maltase - DP° (Degrees of Diastatic Power)

Do your research. Start with reading this article "Digestive Enzymes: Yes or No" which compares different views about enzymes and when they might be helpful. Then seek out other resources.

I'm a big fan of the site, partly because they delve into the relationship between autism in kids and that connection to yeast/digestion. It's also apparent that someone has spent a lot of time gathering information, and from the research I've done so far, most of it (if not all) is pretty much popular opinion within the community.

I also think some of the resources on are worth reading through, as well as the three articles on Protease, Lipase and Amylase found on this site. Yes, they sell the product, but their summaries (follow the links at the end of the article) are echoing what I've read elsewhere.

Finally, here's an article that offers a basic guideline of enzyme products, noting which are available with high counts per capsule and for what use. The author's website is down as I type this, so I can't check out what he's selling.

Be sure to look at other sites as well - preferably ones that don't directly sell digestive products. Pick up a book on the subject. And talk with a specialist or health care practitioner.

Back to top


My Blogs on the Topic

Blog 1:"Digestive Enzymes"
Blog 2:"Experimenting with Enzymes: Battling Bloat - Week Three"