Enzymes play a role in many of the chemical reactions in your body that keep you healthy and alive. They're particularly important for your digestive health, as they help your body break down and absorb nutrients from the foods you eat.
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What Are Enzymes?
Enzymes are biological catalysts that speed up chemical reactions, according to a November 2015 study in Essays in Biochemistry. When an apple starts to turn brown from exposure to the air, for example, it's because enzymes in the apple are reacting with the oxygen. There are several types of enzymes, and each has a specific function.
Digestive enzymes are involved in every part of the digestive process, from the time food enters the body until the time it's eliminated. There are enzymes that help break down fats, carbs and proteins, and others that help with hydration, according to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
You can get enzymes from a variety of sources. Your body produces some, while others are found in food. Eating foods with digestive enzymes as part of a well-balanced eating plan is a great way to support your health.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
According to the NIDDK, there are three main types of digestive enzymes that help break down macronutrients in your diet:
- Proteases help with the breakdown of proteins, so your body's tissues can repair and grow.
- Amylases help break down starches, which provide most of the energy your body uses.
- Lipases are enzymes that do the job of digesting fats. They break triglycerides down into fatty acids and glycerol.
Some of these digestive enzymes are found in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and other foods. Keep scrolling for a list of foods with digestive enzymes.
Having high levels of amylases is a common biomarker for pancreatitis, according to a December 2017 review in Clinical Biochemistry.
If you have or are at risk for the condition, eat foods that inhibit this enzyme instead. Barley may have this effect, according to an April 2015 study in Food Chemistry.
Pineapple is rich in an enzyme called bromelain, a protease that helps with protein-breakdown, according to a September 2016 paper in Biomedical Reports. Bromelain may help reduce inflammation, particularly sinus and nasal inflammation. It's also been linked to improved immune function and wound healing.
On top of that, bromelain has antimicrobial properties, per the Biomeidcal Reports research. The research found that it can help fight a type of bacteria called candida albicans, which may cause fungal infections.
Papaya is full of papain, a protease which helps with protein digestion. Some research suggests that papain may help in relieving heartburn, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Other research on papaya supplements show that it may be helpful in treating digestive symptoms, such as constipation, bloating and heart burn, per the results of a 2013 study in Neuro Endocrinology Letters.
If you're looking for something to add to your diet that might support your digestion, there's no harm in cutting yourself a slice of papaya. Just make sure you don't eat too much.
Honey has entire list of digestive enzymes. That makes it one of the most potent enzymatic foods out there. The enzymes in honey include amylase, diastase, invertase, glucose oxidase and alpha-glucosidase.
Diastase was found to help break down starch in a August 2017 study in Food Chemistry. Similarly, amylase helps the breakdown of starch by turning it into sugars, according to March 2017 research in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.
Bananas share an enzyme with honey: amylase. As mentioned, amylases break down starch into sugars. Amylases cause the sweetening of bananas as they ripen, according to a March 2016 study in Scientifica.
Bananas are also a nutritious source of maltase — the enzyme that breaks down malt sugars, food starches and absorbable glucose — according to January 2017 research in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Green bananas appear to be the most beneficial.
The scientists noted that cereals contain some maltase as well, but at a significantly lower concentration. And because bananas are a nutritious whole-food option, they're better for your digestive health.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink that has a sour taste and is frequently touted for its health benefits. It is loaded with one of the best digestive enzymes: proteases.
As mentioned earlier, proteases help break down proteins in your diet. Kefir also contains probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that support your gut health.
Avocado is a good source of lipase, according to a February 2016 review in Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology. Lipases break down fats into smaller fatty acids that are easier for the body to absorb.
Your pancreas makes lipase, but eating avocados may help support digestion in other ways. They're also high in fiber and healthy fats.
7. Kimchi (and Other Fermented Foods)
Kimchi, a popular fermented food, contains protease, lipase and amylase. These enzymes are formed during the fermentation process, which enhances the nutritional value of vegetables, according to Janauary 2017 research in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
Other fermented foods that have naturally occuring digestive enzymes include miso, saurkraut and tofu.
Good news for garlic-lovers: This delicious bulb is full of alliinase, according to a December 2018 study in Integral Blood Pressure Control. Alliinase has been linked to lower blood pressure, making it one of the best digestive enzymes for people at risk for heart problems.
Digestive Enzyme Deficiency
Some people are deficient in these compounds, making it difficult for them to eat certain types of food. Over time, nutrient deficiencies can lead to a variety of health issues.
According to Clinical Education, digestive enzyme deficiency symptoms may include:
- Pain in the abdomen
- GI issues, such as IBS
- Undigested food in stools
- Feeling full after eating very little
If left unaddressed, chronic enzyme deficiency can lead to:
- Poor immune function
- Crohn's disease
- Essays in Biochemistry: “Enzymes: Principles and Biotechnological Applications”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Gut Reaction: A Limited Role for Digestive Enzyme Supplements”
- Purdue University Extension: "Science Experiment: The Brown Apple Project"
- Current Drug Metabolism: “Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases”
- Biomedical Reports: “Potential Role of Bromelain in Clinical and Therapeutic Applications”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Digestive Enzyme Supplements for Heartburn?”
- Molecular Ecology: “Hive-Stored Pollen of Honey Bees: Many Lines of Evidence Are Consistent With Pollen Preservation, Not Nutrient Conversion”
- Food Chemistry: “HMF and Diastase Activity in Honeys: A Fully Validated Approach and a Chemometric Analysis for Identification of Honey Freshness and Adulteration”
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: “Mechanisms of Starch Digestion by α-Amylase-Structural Basis for Kinetic Properties”
- Scientifica: “Antioxidant and Antihyperglycemic Properties of Three Banana Cultivars (Musa Spp.)”
- Journal of Proteomomics: “Peptide Profiling of Bovine Kefir Reveals 236 Unique Peptides Released From Caseins During Its Production by Starter Culture or Kefir Grains”
- Integral Blood Pressure Control: “Potential of Garlic (Allium sativum) in Lowering High Blood Pressure: Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Relevance”
- International Journal of Medicine: “Shiitake Medicinal Mushroom, Lentinus Edodes (Higher Basidiomycetes) Productivity and Lignocellulolytic Enzyme Profiles During Wheat Straw and Tree Leaf Bioconversion”
- National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestives Diseases
- Clinical Education: Digestive Enzymes
- Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology: The Use of Medium-Chain Triglycerides in Gastrointestinal Disorders
- Journal of Medicinal Food: Health Benefits of Kimchi
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.