You may have heard of the proposed benefits of supplemental digestive enzymes for reducing symptoms of digestive distress, improving immune function, and treating disorders such as pancreatitis. However, the source of the enzyme influences its function and its efficacy in restoring gastrointestinal function and whole-body immunity. Plant-based digestive enzymes are functional over a wide range of pH levels, making them ideal for aiding overall function throughout the digestive system. Animal-based enzymes are only functional in a narrow pH range, making them ineffective in the stomach. However, animal-based enzymes may be beneficial for targeting particular digestive problems.
Definition and Function of Enzymes
In order to get the food you eat into a form your small intestine can absorb, your body requires digestive enzymes to break down the food molecules. Enzymes are special proteins that your body activates in response to certain situations, such as the presence of food in the mouth or stomach. Your mouth has amylase to break down carbohydrates and lipase to break down fats. Proteases in the stomach digest proteins, and cellulase breaks down the fibrous material in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. A portion of the pancreas also secretes enzymes to aid in digestion, and is a potential source of digestive ailments.
Plant-Based Digestive Enzymes
Vegetarian digestive enzyme supplements come from microorganisms such as aspergillus, grown in a lab on soy, barley, or another plant medium. Plant-based enzymes are active across a wide pH range, which makes them useful for aiding digestion in the low pH of the stomach as well as the moderately high-pH environment of the intestine. Insufficient digestion in the mouth and stomach means the small intestine must work harder to break down and absorb food molecules. This imbalance often causes digestive discomfort including bloating, gas, and constipation. Therefore, plant-based enzymes can help relieve stress on the small intestine by improving digestion in the stomach.
Animal-Based Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes from animal origin often come from the pancreatic or stomach enzymes in cows or pigs. Unlike plant-based enzymes, they are only functional at higher pH levels. Therefore, they are less efficient for aiding digestion in the stomach compared to plant-based digestive enzymes. However, specific animal-based enzymes such as pancreatin may be useful for aiding conditions such as pancreatitis, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, and pancreatic cancer. Pancreatin contains the proteases, amylases, and lipases that a normally functioning pancreas would have; therefore, this enzyme would be useful for targeting an isolated problem in the pancreas.
Although digestive enzymes can relieve indigestion symptoms and improve digestive function, they can also lead to side effects such as stomach upset if you take a high dose of them. Therefore, you should not exceed the dose recommended or stop taking the supplements if dose reduction does not help. Additionally, some enzymes are not recommended in pregnant women or individuals on blood thinners. You should consult with a doctor if you have any preexisting medical conditions before taking enzyme supplements.
- "Medical Physiology, Updated Edition"; Walter F. Boron and Emile L. Boulpaep, 2005
- "Enzymedica, The Basic Enzyme Facts: What Are Enzymes?"