Digestive upset, constipation, acid reflux and other gastrointestinal complaints are common during pregnancy. If you're pregnant and experience any of these symptoms, you might find yourself wondering if supplemental digestive enzymes could help alleviate your discomfort. Unfortunately, despite the popularity of supplemental enzymes, there are very few cases in which they have any effect whatsoever.
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Pregnancy and Digestion
During pregnancy, your digestive tract changes in several important ways. First and foremost, it slows down significantly, explain Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel in their book "What To Expect When You're Expecting." This helps ensure that you're able to extract all the nutrients from the food you eat. You also experience loosening of the cardiac sphincter, which normally separates the stomach from the esophagus. These factors combine to produce stomach upset, acid indigestion, heartburn, constipation and a host of other common pregnancy complaints.
In recent years, manufacturers have been marketing supplemental digestive enzymes as alternative treatments for a host of ailments, including heartburn and digestive upset. Humans depend on enzymes for digestion; enzymes are chemicals that help break down the molecules in the food you eat into smaller molecules that your intestine can absorb, explain Drs. Reginald Garrett and Charles Grisham in their book "Biochemistry." With very few exceptions, however, enzyme deficiency isn't responsible for the discomfort you're experiencing, and enzyme supplementation won't help.
For the most part, the reason you can't benefit from enzyme supplementation is that your body has no mechanism for utilizing enzymes that you don't produce. In other words, taking plant enzymes like papain -- which comes from papaya -- does you no good because your body isn't set up to use papain. Furthermore, enzymes are delicate. Most can't survive the acidic interior of the stomach, meaning that if you take supplemental enzymes, they're simply digested.
The one case in which you can benefit from digestive enzymes during pregnancy is if you're lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance is a disorder in which you don't produce lactase, the digestive enzyme responsible for breaking down milk sugar. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include gas, cramping and diarrhea upon consumption of milk or other dairy products. If you are pregnant and experience symptoms of lactose intolerance, you might want to discuss a lactase supplement with your obstetrician.