After we eat, our bodies break down the food to extract the nutrients and life-sustaining energy. No matter what we eat, the body uses vital digestive enzymes to deconstruct the food into usable parts. Sadly, as we age, many of us produce fewer digestive enzymes, which can make it more difficult for the body to extract and absorb nutrients.
Having fewer digestive enzymes also makes us less tolerant of excess calories and fats, especially in fried foods. If the digestive enzymes aren’t available to help digest the foods we eat, the only-partially food travels through the body and into the colon. Here, these food particles can wreak havoc and lead to digestive complaints like:
- Gastrointestinal upset
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Foul-smelling stools
- Yellow, greasy stools.
Worse yet, it can also compromise the absorption of nutrients. This can lead to malnutrition in aging adults if the condition isn’t addressed.
To promote healthy digestion, it’s important to consume a nutrient-rich, whole-food diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet or a high-protein diet that’s contains plenty of plant foods. Yet again, if you don’t have sufficient digestive enzymes, you may not be able to absorb the abundant nutrients these types of foods provide.
Fortunately, there are foods and supplements that help replace the missing digestive enzymes as well as probiotics to help address gastrointestinal issues and improve nutrient absorption.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes are made throughout the digestive system within the mouth, stomach, small intestine, and especially in the pancreas. These enzymes are needed to break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, so the body can then absorb the nutrients. Otherwise, the food (and the energy and nutrients it contains) travels through the body to be removed as waste.
If the body doesn’t produce or secrete enough digestive enzymes, consuming specific digestive enzymes before eating can help break down those foods, so they can be absorbed. The main types of digestive enzymes include:
Proteases, which are needed to break down proteins into amino acids (including the protein found in wheat, known as gluten, as well as proteins in dairy foods). Some of the key proteases are:
- Protease SP
- Protease S
Carbohydrases, as expected by the name, are digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates. Some of the key carbohydrases include:
- Amylase, which breaks down longer chain carbs (e.g., starches) into sugars for energy. It’s produced by both the pancreas and the salivary glands. This is one reason it’s important to thoroughly chew your food before you swallow.
- Glucoamylase, which complements amylase in the breakdown of longer-chain carbs into more absorbable forms.
- Lactase, which is well-known for its role in breaking down milk sugar to allow people to enjoy dairy foods more comfortably.
- Alpha-Galactosidase, which helps break down the hard-to-digest carbohydrates found in beans to ward off the common side effects of eating these nutrient-rich but gas-inducing
- Cellulase, which is needed to help break down fruits and vegetables and promote the release and absorption of nutrients that would otherwise be lost in the digestive process.
- Beta-Glucanase and Xylanase, which helps break down difficult-to-digest carbohydrates and fibers found in grains, including oats, wheat, and barley.
- Pectinase, which helps break down indigestible carbs and fibers, including pectin, found in various fruits and vegetables.
Lipase, a category of digestive enzymes that breaks down dietary fat to improve the digestion of fats, which may support gallbladder function.
Foods High in Digestive Enzymes
While digestive enzymes like lactase, maltase, and sucrase can be made in the small intestine, the body may not be able to make enough. Fortunately, eating specific foods that are high in digestive enzymes has been shown to help promote digestion. Some of the top foods that provide digestive enzymes naturally are:
- Avocados, a nutrient-rich food that not only provides healthy fats but also contains digestive enzymes, specifically lipase. This enzyme helps the body absorb fatty acids and may aid digestion after a higher-fat meal. 1,2
- Bananas contain both amylases and glucosidases, which help break down starchy or complex carbs. 3 Riper, more yellow bananas provide higher amounts of digestive enzymes than green bananas. In addition, because bananas are a good source of fiber (3+ grams per), they have been found to support digestive health and have been found to decrease bloating. 4
- Ginger is a source of the digestive enzyme zingibain, which helps break down proteins. It also helps the body produce its own digestive enzymes, including amylase and lipase. Finally, ginger may support healthy digestion by helping move food through the stomach. 5,6
- Kefir is a probiotic-rich fermented dairy beverage that provides several digestive enzymes, such as lipase, proteases, and lactase. 7
- Kiwi is often recommended on lists of foods that are good for the gut. That’s because it provides digestive enzymes (particularly actinidin, a protease), which help protein foods move through the system more efficiently. 8 In fact, kiwi has been found to help ease constipation in research. 9, 10
- Mangos provide amylase, which helps break down carbs into easier-to-digest and absorb sugars. The riper the mango, the sweeter it is and the more digestive enzymes it provides. 11
- Miso is another fermented food (made with soybeans). But it’s also made with koji, which is a fungus that contains the digestive enzymes lactases, lipases, proteases, and amylases. This explains why miso is well known for easing digestive issues. 12, 13
- Papaya is a rich source of proteases called papain, which helps with the digestion of proteins. 14
- Pineapple is rich in bromelain, a group of digestive enzymes that help break down proteins into their amino acid building blocks. 15
- Raw honey is high in many different beneficial nutrients, including digestive enzymes such as diastases, amylases, invertases, and proteases. 16, 17
- Sauerkraut and other fermented foods like kimchi because the fermentation process adds digestive enzymes along with probiotics to boost digestive health. 17, 18
While we’re all for getting what we need from foods, sometimes it just isn’t enough. If you have more intense or more prolonged digestive issues, quality supplements may provide a variety of digestive enzymes to help improve digestion. This is especially true if you find your body reacts poorly to certain foods like dairy (due to lactose intolerance) or beans , which becomes more common as we age.
Numerous studies have found that people who take digestive enzyme supplements report less pain, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, bloating, gas, and appetite loss than those who don’t. To get the most from these types of supplements, look for those that provide digestive enzymes that help with the breakdown of all types of foods (i.e., proteins, fats, and carbohydrates).
Role of Digestive Enzymes
Ensuring your body is producing enough digestive enzymes or getting them from the foods or supplements you consume is not only good for overall health, it’s essential. Especially as we age, it can become more difficult for the body to absorb the nutrients from foods, which can lead to deficiencies, even when eating a good diet. It can also lead to uncomfortable digestive issues. This can often be explained due to a lack of necessary digestive enzymes.
As always, if you have any health concerns, speak with your trusted healthcare practitioner to discuss your options and help you find the best solution for you, your body, and your digestive issues.