Have you been eyeing the digestive enzymes in the supplement aisle? Then you’ve noticed that marketing schemes and bloggers claim they fix everything from leaky gut to diabetes to basic bloat. It’s hard not to be enticed, but what does it all mean? Turns out there truly are some real benefits to cultivating good digestive enzymes, and the best way to harness these stomach-soothing catalysts is by eating plants.
What are digestive enzymes?
Balanced digestive enzymes make it possible to unpack and absorb nutrients from our food, process toxins, and get rid of waste. Enzymes play a crucial role in making macronutrients available to the body, but they also make micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) accessible. Eating nutrient-dense foods and taking supplements doesn’t guarantee you’ll actually absorb them, which is why healthy digestive enzymes are so important. Their role of extracting waste is also essential, as it helps food move along, if you know what we mean.
Enzymes are made of amino acids, the building blocks of protein, but digestive enzymes are identified by the macronutrient (carbohydrate, protein, and fat) they break down. Carbohydrate enzymes convert carbs into the sugars that fuel us. The best example of this is amylase in saliva, which is why it is important to spend extra time chewing your food. Protease enzymes breakdown proteins and actually help the body decide when to use them. We’ve got pretty smart systems at work—our bodies can discern in real-time which aminos to use now, which to store, and which to use for repair. Tell that to the self-proclaimed carnivore guzzling 50-plus grams of whey protein; your enzymes aren’t going to use that all at once. Lipase enzymes use water to break down fats, converting them into glycerol and fatty acids (like those good-for-you omegas).
What about enzyme supplements?
Like most over-the-counter supplements, enzyme supplements aren’t regulated or verified, which means that choosing trustworthy products is essential.
Luckily, reputable institutions like The Mayo Clinic and journals like Current Drug Metabolism are researching both digestive enzymes and enzyme supplements, and plant-based versions are in favor. Studies are showing that supplemental enzymes from animal sources are pH-sensitive, and plant-based enzyme supplements are more effective because they can withstand the acids in our stomachs. Recent studies comparing animal-based to plant-based enzymes side-by-side show that plant-based enzymes may be as much as 13 times more effective for things like fat metabolization, among other things. Vegan win!
How can enzymes can help us?
Does bread make your stomach rumble? Vegan digestive enzymes could help. Plant-derived digestive enzymes are being explored as a therapeutic treatment for celiac disease and are also the subject of ongoing studies regarding general gluten-intolerance. When combined with certain probiotics, enzyme supplements can improve immune function and may effectively break down gluten.
Beyond that, bromelain, a protease enzyme from pineapple, has been shown to reduce inflammation and swelling, prevent dangerous blood clot formation, and even improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis (OA). When you add chymotrypsin, this powerful enzyme duo can reduce pain and swelling from fractures—comparable to over-the-counter pain medicine like aspirin. This duo has also been shown to speed up the healing of cuts and burns, too. And new studies are exploring enzyme inhibition for things like weight loss, diabetes, psychiatric illnesses, and Alzheimer’s Disease. So the bottom line here is that from celiacs to inflammation to osteoporosis, research is showing that digestive enzymes can help with a number of chronic issues.
How can you maximize digestive enzymes?
Stay hydrated, but don’t drown your gut. Drinking water improves digestion, but drinking directly before or during your meal reduces the concentration of stomach acids, including digestive enzymes. Also, drinking water to “catch up” can increase gas, bloating, and discomfort, often misidentified as poor digestion. Sip throughout the day and you’ll put those enzymes to work!
Eat and cook with a variety of enzyme-rich foods. Ever hear the phrase, “eat your colors?” Those colors are an indicator of a nutrient-dense, enzyme-rich food. Examples include pineapple (protease), papaya (protease), mango (amylase), banana (carbohydrase), avocado (lipase), kiwi (protease), ginger (protease), and apricot (carbohydrase). Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso typically have all three! These high-enzyme foods can be eaten raw or cooked. Eat up your enzymes by topping your vegan hotdog with sauerkraut, finishing a salad bowl with kimchi, or marinating your tofu in a miso sauce. Also, when enjoying these nutrient-packed dishes, be mindful. Chew your food thoroughly and eat slowly. This allows for amylase (a carbohydrase enzyme found in saliva) more time to break down your food, giving your body a jumpstart on digestion. No need to count bites or set a timer; just take your time and really enjoy that beautiful sauerkraut-topped salad!
Suzannah Gerber (Chef Suzi) is a Boston-based vegan Executive Chef Consultant, author, and medical researcher specializing in Culinary Medicine and Food Behavior.