Build a Stronger Gut With Digestive Enzymes
By: Emma Rose
- Your body relies on digestive enzymes to convert the food you eat into the nutrients you absorb.
- Digestive enzymes are a useful tool for managing accidental exposure to food sensitivities, or helping your body transition to a new diet.
- Digestive enzymes are not free passes to eat foods that irritate your body.
When you follow the Bulletproof Diet, you’re loading up on optimal vitamins and minerals, the best fats and proteins, and nutrient-dense veggies. But if your digestive enzymes aren’t working properly, you may be missing out on the performance-boosting benefits of your supercharged diet.
Digestive enzymes are necessary for breaking down the food you eat into raw building blocks to fuel your body. Bloating, malabsorption, or difficulty transitioning to a new diet can all be signs of lagging enzymes.
Matt Gallant and Wade Lightheart, founders of supplement company BiOptimizers, discuss in a recent Bulletproof Radio (iTunes) podcast episode the powerful benefits that enzymes have had on their health.
“We tried a massive amount of enzymes for 90 days, and we both transformed,” says Gallant. “We both gained muscle, both lost fat, skin improved, our brains improved, and we’re like, ‘Okay. This works.’”
Digestive enzymes are gaining popularity as health supplements, but with so many brands on the shelf, it’s hard to know where to start. Read on for a jump-start guide to digestive enzymes: what they are, when they help, and what to look for.
What are digestive enzymes?
Enzymes are proteins that your body produces to catalyze specific chemical reactions. Your pancreas, stomach, salivary glands, and the brush border of your small intestine all release enzymes that help break down your food into nutrients that your body can absorb. Enzymes also protect your gut by breaking down inflammatory compounds such as lectins, which contribute to leaky gut.
Different enzymes work to digest different compounds in your diet, such as amino acids or sugars. For example: the lactase enzyme is needed to digest lactose sugars. Since most adults no longer produce lactase, many people cannot digest dairy.
What factors lower enzyme production?
All the healthy food in the world won’t do you much good if your body doesn’t have the enzymes required to break it down into smaller nutrients. Pancreatic problems, damage to the intestinal brush border, or severe inflammatory digestive conditions such as Celiac or Crohn’s Disease can all axe your enzyme production.
“Anything that’s going to drive inflammation in the gut is going to cause the brush border to be disturbed, and can impact pancreatic function as well,” says Dr. Tim Gerstmar, a Seattle-based naturopathic doctor and a digestive health and autoimmune specialist.
This can range from leaky gut, to bacterial overgrowth, to minor food intolerances. Worse, with low enzyme counts, undigested proteins can pass through your gut and cause more inflammation. Low stomach acid is also linked to low enzyme production, and your body naturally produces fewer enzymes as you age. 
But most people are losing enzymes thanks to a more pervasive, yet common, threat, says Gerstmar.
“The single biggest dysfunction that impacts digestion is just stress,” he says.
High stress throttles digestion by sending your body into “fight or flight” mode, where your body reduces the energy it uses for digestion. If your ancestor was running from a predator, fully absorbing their last meal wasn’t a top priority. Chronic stress can lead to low levels of digestive enzymes and difficulty fully digesting meals. Undiagnosed, these low levels can lead to malabsorption or malnutrition. 
Symptoms of low enzyme counts
- Frequent visible pieces of undigested food in stool
- Steatorrhea (undigested fats or oils in stool)
- Feeling a “rock” in your stomach
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Gas or bloating
- Unintended weight loss
- Malnutrition symptoms
Happy enzymes or not, it’s natural to experience similar digestive symptoms after indulging in a pizza, or being exposed to a food sensitivity. When you notice symptoms like these even when eating nutritious foods, you may have an issue with your enzymes.
Enzyme deficiencies can be difficult to diagnose, since they often share symptoms with other digestive issues. These nonspecific signals often go misdiagnosed or unrecognized. While direct tests for enzyme levels can be useful for diagnosing serious pancreatic problems, Gerstmar recommends stool tests to confirm most enzyme issues. These tests can show your health provider a more comprehensive picture of your enzyme health, plus digestive markers such as bacterial or fungal overgrowth, gut inflammation, digestion, or parasite infection.
Are digestive enzymes the answer?
A good first step when faced with these symptoms is adopting the Bulletproof Diet to heal your gut, reducing inflammation, and managing stress. The Bulletproof Diet also eliminates enzyme inhibitors like grains and legumes, and promotes raw, organic vegetables, which contain their own natural enzymes.
Ideally, your body produces enough of any given enzyme to handle your typical diet. Drastic diet changes can throw your body off its game, and supplementing the right enzymes may help smooth the transition.
Enzymes can also be useful as a tool for food accidents: say you’re out with friends, and you realize you’ve eaten gluten, dairy, or something you know you have trouble digesting. A quick dose of extra enzymes can help your body break down the food to minimize damage.
If a specific food irritates you, it’s often best to avoid it rather than rely on enzymes to help you tolerate it. Everyone is different, and an elimination diet can help you identify which foods trigger your digestive problems. On the other hand, issues digesting entire food groups, such as leafy greens or meats, may benefit from extra enzymes to boost your overall digestion and vitamin absorption.
Read more: Avoid these foods to beat gas and bloating
Choosing the right enzymes
With so many enzyme brands on the shelf, choosing the right product can be daunting. There are no one-size-fits-all answers for enzymes, and different combinations or dosages may work for different people. Avoid brands with fillers or artificial agents, and decide if vegetarian capsules are a must for your lifestyle.
Enzyme supplements can be grouped into three categories by their source: animal, plant, or sourced. Gerstmar most often recommends fungal-sourced enzymes for his patients as a potent, affordable, and broad-spectrum option. Since these enzymes are taken from mushroom or fungal extracts, they can have adverse effects on people with extreme fungi or nightshade sensitivities.
Animal-derived enzymes (usually pancreatic products from pigs) are broad-spectrum, potent, and most similar to our own enzymes, but tend to be more expensive and less shelf-stable, and can be difficult for people with more sensitive immune systems.
Lastly, plant based enzymes, such as bromelain or papain, tend to be more limited and less potent, but are affordable and shelf stable options.
Supplements can help out when enzymes your are low all around, or to target a particular deficiency. Specific enzymes tackle specific compounds in your diet, so identifying which foods you struggle to digest can help narrow the enzymes you need. Most often, a combination supplement with a blend of multiple digestive enzymes can provide the best support for low enzyme production. Below, a quick list of some common digestive enzymes, and the foods they help target.
- Cellulase: Cellulose in fiber-rich plants
- Lipase: fats and oils
- Protease: proteins
- Peptidase: certain proteins such as gluten or casein.
- Alpha-galactosidase: starches in legumes
- Pectinase: pectin in fruits
- Amylase: starches
- Glucoamylase: maltose sugar
- Invertase: sucrose sugar
- Lactase: lactose sugar from dairy
When starting out with a digestive enzyme supplement, try it out for 3-5 days to see how it impacts your digestion. While doses differ by brand, it generally helps to take enzymes directly before a meal.
“Broadly speaking,” says Gerstmar, “what you eat takes 24 hours to go through you.” If you don’t see improvement in a few days, it may be time for more troubleshooting.
Keep in mind that diet, stress or inflammation are often at the root of enzyme deficiencies, and a quick and easy supplement might not always be the best answer. “The biggest factor that affects poor digestion is going to be eating too fast, eating too big of a meal, and being stressed out while you do it,” says Gerstmar. “You’re setting yourself up for poor digestion.”
Digestive enzymes are a powerful tool for immediate relief of problems, but ultimately the solution comes from identifying sources of inflammation and stress.
Read next: How to Fix Leaky Gut
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