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4 W’s Of Digestive Enzymes

February 1, 2019

Maybe you have heard about them from a doctor, friend, or a clip on a news program.  Maybe you have been taking them for years, or maybe you have not heard of them at all.  No matter which category you fall into, we want to answer all of your questions about digestive enzymes.

WHAT are digestive enzymes, anyway?

We eat food, but our body needs micro- and macro-nutrients that can be absorbed and used.  Digestion begins in the mouth, with the secretion of saliva.  From there, it travels to your stomach, where stomach acid, primarily HCL, further breaks down food.  To complete food break down, we use digestive enzymes, small proteins that act on specific molecules within food.  There are several basic types:

–AMYLASES break down starches into simple sugars.

–LIPASES break down fats into fatty acids and cholesterol, and

–PROTEASES AND PEPTIDASES help break down proteins into amino acids.

Within these major groups are many specific enzymes.  One that is particularly interesting to many people is dppIV, which can help break down gluten.  It is helpful for people with gluten sensitivities who are already following a gluten-free diet but need help digesting gluten that may be accidentally ingested.  Note that we say “accidentally-“ dppIV is not an answer for gluten-intolerant individuals who want to have a pizza free-for-all!

WHO should be supplementing?

In an ideal world, our bodies would naturally produce adequate amounts of digestive enzymes without supplementation.  However, many people suffer from enzyme deficiency, which can cause symptoms such as bloating, gas, and indigestion.  There are varied causes of enzyme deficiency, and we learn more every day.  Food allergies, chronic stress, pancreatic problems, inflammation, low stomach acid, and aging are just a few reasons our bodies might not be secreting all the enzymes we need.

Besides people with digestive distress, people with inflammation can benefit from supplementing with digestive enzymes.  If any of this sounds like you, there is a good chance that a digestive enzyme supplement could help.

WHERE can I get my hands on these?

We carry some great digestive enzymes at the clinic, but many brands are also available over the counter.  You can find them online, at grocery stores, and at big-box retailers.  So many products are available, it can really be overwhelming!  The important thing to understand is how to compare potency so that you can get the most bang for your buck.

Usually, when you look at the label on a bottle of digestive enzymes, the ingredients are listed by weight, typically in milligrams (mg).  This does not tell you anything about the activity levels or potency of the enzymes.  Quality products will use the standard FCC (Food Chemical Codex) units of measurement.  This establishes the activity levels for the enzymes.

Here is a handy table you can use to compare:

Enzyme NameCommon Labeling UnitsConversion
ProteaseHUT, USP, SAP1 HUT = approx. 6.5 USP
AmylaseDU1 DU = approx. 48 USP
LipaseFIP, LU, FCCLU1FIP = approx. 2.5 LU/FCCLU No conversion available to USP

To select a quality digestive enzyme, compare the units of activity to the price.  One product may have a higher price, but when you compare the activity units, you may only need 1 capsule of a product versus 3 or 4 of another.

Just as important as the potency of the enzyme is detecting the addition of fillers.  Many manufacturers use magnesium stearate, silica, to either fill up a standard sized capsule or to prevent caking or clumping.

Besides over the counter options, there are prescription pancreatic enzymes available.  These all come from porcine (pig!) sources, so if you have a pork allergy they may not be for you.  They are commonly prescribed for patients with pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis, and other diseases of the pancreas.  These can be prescribed in several different dosages, with the appropriate dose being determined by the prescribing physician.  Prescription pancreatic enzymes can be quite a bit stronger than what is available over the counter.  For example, a commonly prescribed pancreatic enzyme has 3,000 units of lipase per capsule at the lowest dose, and can be prescribed up to 36,000 units..  The brand that we carry contains 2016 units and is not available in multiple dosages.  Still, the over the counter options are effective for most people.

Confused yet?  That is what we are here for.  We are always happy to show you the digestive enzymes we have in stock, or to talk to you about other reputable, effective brands.

WHEN should I take digestive enzymes, now that I have a good product?

The timing of digestive enzymes really depends on your goal.  If your goal is to eliminate or reduce unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms, take your digestive enzymes with your meal.  We like to tell people to titrate their supplement to their gut.  This means that if you take 2 capsules and have no symptoms, then take 3 and have a burning sensation in your stomach, 2 capsules would be your ideal dose.  Some people may need 5 capsules or more depending on their product and their body, while others may get relief from only 1 or 2.

If you are struggling with inflammation and joint pain, it is best to take a digestive enzyme between meals.  Whichever brand you choose should contain proteolytic enzymes such as bromelain, pepsin, and pepain.  When you take these between meals, they do not get stuck working in your stomach, but quickly make their way into your bloodstream where they can help modulate inflammatory responses.  Taking digestive enzymes this way has been shown to be as effective or more than taking several steroidal and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Digestive enzymes can be valuable for countless people.  We want to make sure you are choosing quality products and taking them at times that will improve your health the most.  If you have any more questions or need further assistance choosing the best digestive enzyme supplement for you, let us know!