Your gut needs digestive enzymes to break down the foods you eat. If you have digestive enzyme insufficiency, then you may experience a range of digestive health issues.
Digestive enzyme supplements have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years.
Digestive enzyme supplement companies advertise their products as a way to target gut irritation, heartburn, bloating, and other digestive health issues.
Today, we’re explaining everything you need to know about digestive enzyme deficiency, including symptoms of digestive enzyme insufficiency problems and science-backed solutions.
How Digestive Enzymes Work
Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down food in your gut. Your body produces these proteins in response to the foods you eat. They play a critical role in digestion.
If you have inadequate levels of digestive enzymes, then your body could struggle to break down food, extract the nutritional value of the food you eat, and maximize the energy of the food you consume.
Here are the basics of digestive enzymes and how they work, as explained by Johns Hopkins:
- Your body creates digestive enzymes naturally. Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down food and help with the digestive process.
- Your body starts to produce digestive enzymes immediately after you start eating food. Digestion begins in the mouth.
- Your saliva starts to break down food immediately, easing the strain on the rest of your digestive system.
- As food travels through your mouth and into your digestive tract, your body releases enzymes at various points throughout the process.
- Your pancreas produces the most important digestive enzymes, including the enzymes that break down carbs, proteins, and fats.
- Your small intestine, mouth, and stomach also produce other digestive enzymes.
Symptoms of Digestive Enzyme Deficiency
For various reasons, your body may fail to produce sufficient levels of digestive enzymes. You may have problems with your pancreas, for example, making it difficult for your body to break down fats, carbs, and proteins.
Common symptoms of digestive enzyme deficiency include:
- Oily stools
- Unexplained weight loss
- Belly pain or cramps
Sometimes, these symptoms are a sign of enzyme deficiency. Your body, for various reasons, may not be producing enough enzymes to break down the foods you eat. However, if these symptoms persist, you should talk to a doctor, as they could be a sign of a more serious medical condition.
Common Digestive Enzymes and Digestive Enzyme Supplement Ingredients
Your body produces amylase to break down complex carbs, and it produces lipase to break down fats. These enzymes and others play a crucial role in the digestive process.
Here are some of the most common digestive enzymes produced by your body – and the most popular digestive enzyme supplement ingredients:
Amylase: Your mouth and pancreas produce amylase to help break down complex carbs.
Lipase: Your pancreas creates lipase to break down fats.
Protease: Your pancreas creates protease to break down proteins.
Lactase: Various parts of your digestive system create lactase to break down lactose, which is the sugar in milk and other dairy products.
Sucrase: Various parts of your digestive system create sucrase to break down sucrose, a common type of sugar found in many foods.
Digestive Enzyme Insufficiency Conditions
If your mouth, pancreas, small intestine, and stomach cannot produce sufficient digestive enzymes, then you might have one of several digestive enzyme insufficiency conditions.
Some of the most common conditions linked to enzyme insufficiency include:
Congenital Sucrase-Isomaltose Deficiency: If your body isn’t producing enough sucrase to digest certain sugars, then you may have congenital sucrase-isomaltose deficiency.
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI): If your pancreas cannot produce enough enzymes to digest carbs, proteins, and fats, then you may have EPI.
Lactose Intolerance: Many people are naturally lactose intolerance because they body doesn’t produce enough lactase, making it difficult to digest the sugar found in milk and dairy products.
Causes of Digestive Enzyme Deficiency
You may develop a digestive enzyme deficiency condition for various reasons – including genetic reasons, lifestyle factors, and other causes. Certain medical conditions also make it difficult for your body to produce digestive enzymes.
Some of the most common causes of digestive enzyme deficiency include:
- Genetic causes
- Lifestyle factors
- Chronic pancreatitis
- Cystic fibrosis (roughly 90% of people with cystic fibrosis have pancreatic enzyme insufficiency)
- Gastrointestinal surgeries
- Pancreatic cancer, chronic pancreatitis, and other conditions that disrupt your pancreas
Even if your parents have a healthy gut, you may have genetic factors increasing the risk of enzyme deficiency. Some genetic factors are present at birth and become worse over time, for example.
How to Support Digestive Enzyme Production
Many people take digestive enzyme supplements daily to support gut health and digestive enzyme production.
Here are some of the best and most science-backed ways to support digestive enzyme production and support overall gut health:
Digestive Enzyme Supplements: Digestive enzyme supplements are available over-the-counter, and they claim to help with gas, bloating, diarrhea, acid reflux, and other conditions. Digestive enzyme supplements clearly label their ingredients upfront, and most contain a blend of protease, lipase, amylase, and other common digestive enzymes.
Prescription Digestive Enzymes: If your doctor diagnosed an enzyme deficiency, then they may recommend a prescription-strength digestive enzyme formula. The FDA has approved pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), and it’s the most popular digestive enzyme deficiency treatment recommended by doctors today. PERT can help your body with protease, amylase, and lipase production to break down proteins, complex carbs, and fats.
Lactase Supplements: If you are lactose intolerant, then a lactase supplement could help you eat dairy products with limited side effects. Lactase supplements give your body the digestive enzymes needed to break down lactose, the main sugar in dairy.
Alpha Galactosidase Supplements: Alpha galactosidase is one digestive enzyme your body cannot produce on its own – even if you have no digestive enzyme production issues. Your body needs this enzyme to break down galactooligosaccharides (GOS), a type of non-absorbable fiber.
Digestive-Enzyme Rich Foods: Some natural health experts recommend eating more pineapples and avocados because they’re rich with digestive enzymes. It’s true avocado and pineapple contain digestive enzymes (including bromelain). However, there’s little evidence they can specifically help with digestive enzyme production. Instead, it’s better to follow a balanced, whole food diet to support your body’s natural production of digestive enzymes overall. Avoid processed foods, fried foods, and fatty foods to help your body maximize digestive enzyme production.
As Johns Hopkins explains, most healthy people don’t need to take digestive enzyme supplements because their bodies produce digestive enzymes naturally. However, people with digestive enzyme insufficiency issues could benefit from talking to a doctor about digestive enzyme treatments and supplements.
Digestive enzyme insufficiency can lead to bloating, gas and other issues.
By spotting the signs of digestive enzyme problems early, you can talk to a doctor for the help you need – whether it’s in the form of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) or digestive enzyme supplements.