Digestive Enzyme Supplements

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH


Digestive Enzyme Supplements and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome

Illustration of the many components of the digestive system including the liver and rectum. These organs all benefit from digestive enzyme supplements.A fully functional digestive system is necessary to a body’s health and upkeep. The digestive system is not a simple one; there are a number of enzymes, secreted by different organs in the digestive system, which maintain the absorption of necessary nutrients. Proper enzyme production is key to adequate digestive function. There are a number of symptoms that can indicate a malfunction in the digestive system.

Adrenal Fatigue can cause distress to the digestive system, which can then set off other adverse effects throughout the body. Addressing Adrenal Fatigue can itself ease some symptoms of digestive enzyme imbalance or insufficiency. To keep the system functioning at its highest levels, it is important to understand how it works.

The digestive system is comprised of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, liver, small intestine and colon. Many of these organs have cells that secrete their own enzymes to help along the digestive process. Each serves an essential role in the body’s digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Parts of the Digestive System

Salivary glands, the glands that produce saliva in the mouth, are the first step to digestion. Our saliva contains lingual lipase, salivary amylase, lysozyme, and haptocorrin. Most people probably haven’t heard these terms for the enzymes our mouth’s serous and mucous cells provide, but each again serves its own purpose in the first step to breaking down our food.

After moving beyond the mouth and esophagus, food moves to the stomach where it meets with a number of enzymes unique to the cells in the stomach. Pepsin, the primary enzyme for gastric (stomach) digestion, breaks down the food while several other enzymes in the stomach begin to absorb the available nutrients. Hydrochloric acid, gastrin, gastric lipase, intrinsic factor, and mucin all play a role in the stomach’s part of the digestive process.

The pancreas contains ductal and acinar cells that create enzymes for the digestive system. Ductal cells create bicarbonate to balance the stomach’s acidity. Acinar cells create inactive enzymes that combine with food as it moves through the digestive system. Once the food enters the small intestine, the pancreatic enzymes (trypsinogen, lipase, chymotrypsinogen and many more) activate to help break down protein and fat.

The small intestine’s cells make a number of enzymes of their own. Lactase, which is essential for adequate digestion of dairy products, is created in the small intestine. Maltase and sucrase, which do the important work of breaking down sugars, are also created there. These are just brief reviews of the enzymes made by the cells in our digestive organs to aid digestion.

The digestive system is a complicated and delicate system of cells and glands producing the important enzymes we need to break down our food. It is easy to be confused by all of the different factors that play a part in this system. Small deficiencies or imbalances can make major differences in how the digestive system works. Each enzyme is crucial to absorbing the nutrients our bodies need to sustain function.

Adrenal Fatigue and Digestive Abnormalities

Adrenal Fatigue can cause a number of problems in the body’s digestive system. Gastrointestinal function can be irritable or hyperactive in cases of Adrenal Fatigue. This distress causes malabsorption of nutrients that then leads to further health problems. Reduced nutrient absorption can affect liver function, leading to increased toxins in the blood, which spurs more dysfunction throughout the body.

Prolonged Adrenal Fatigue can be quite serious for the digestive system. As adrenal glands decrease output from years of fatigue, food allergy symptoms that might have otherwise been less noticeable become chronic issues causing digestive irritability. In severe cases, these intolerances or allergies can physically damage the structure of the digestive tract.

“Leaky gut syndrome” is an affliction of the digestive system that can lead to serious complications in the body. Leaky gut means intestinal permeability: holes in the intestinal tract let unabsorbed substances leak into the bloodstream. These undigested proteins and fats that make their way into the bloodstream can lead to autoimmune reactions triggering the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol to try to fight the undigested protein and fat. Like many issues related to Adrenal Fatigue, this problem is a cyclical one. More cortisol can cause more intestinal distress, which can lead to further adrenal gland expenditure, causing fatigue and leading to yet more issues. Handling this situation carefully is important; as we have seen, the digestive system is quite complicated and requires balance in order to function properly.

Without proper nutrients, our bodies lose energy. Immune system function can falter leaving the body more susceptible to infection. When an adrenal crash occurs, the body may reject food or liquid because it cannot produce the digestive enzymes necessary to properly digest and absorb it. Susceptibility to infection is dangerous for those who are already in weaker physical states.

Why Digestive Enzyme Supplements?

Some people attempt to handle digestive irritation, distress, or complications with the use of digestive enzyme supplements. These supplements can come in a number of forms, with a number of purported functions. Like any nutritional supplement, digestive enzyme supplements should be chosen, and taken, with care.

As with any medical affliction, testing is important to understand the scope and nature of an issue before it can be properly dealt with. Though minor abnormalities may exist in any digestive system, blood and stool tests can help to determine what is most important to address in digestive function and enzyme abnormality.

Some visible symptoms of digestive distress can occur to help you understand whether the use of digestive enzyme supplements is necessary. Persistent bloating, intolerance to normal amounts of substantive food, undigested food in stool, or visible undigested fat in stool can all be visible indicators of digestive abnormality and dysfunction.

The most popular digestive enzymes supplements in the market contain alpha-galactosidase, which is an enzyme that comes from mold that helps to break down vegetable fiber in food. However, mainstream medical practice seems to be suspicious about the efficacy of claims made by makers of digestive enzyme supplements. Like many nutritional substances, digestive enzyme supplements can be expensive and their claims can be difficult to prove.

Digestive Enzyme Supplements and Their Functions

A man holding a glass of milk and clutching his stomach as if in pain, illustrating lactose intolerance. Digestive enzyme supplements can help overcome it.For people who are lactose intolerant, a lactase supplement can be helpful. Lactase supplements are pills or tablets to take along with dairy products to aid digestion. Lactase supplements also come in liquid drop form. Some milk products are marketed with lactase added to aid digestion.

Digestive enzyme supplements in the market contain different compounds, probiotics, or acids. Ox bile, protease, lipase, bromelain, and betaine HCl are some of the enzymes found in these supplements. Some naturopathic supplements also include herbs like dandelion root, barberry root, beetroot, fennel seed, or cayenne pepper.

While many of these ingredients have been shown to aid in the digestion process, it is difficult to gauge just how much difference the concentrations or amounts of enzymes in these supplements matter. Plant enzymes can indeed ease bloating and gas. They can also decrease the feeling of exhaustion we get after a big meal.

Protease, lipase, pepsin, and similar digestive enzymes that occur naturally can be ingested in the form of digestive enzyme supplements, but it appears as though supplemental forms of these enzymes need to be taken with the food they are meant to help digest. If the supplements are not taken with food, they may move through the system before they can make a significant effect on the body’s digestive process.

This does not mean that the supplements are ineffective. In fact, people taking the supplements on a regular basis report positive results. The fact remains, though, that the majority of these supplements include proprietary blends that are not FDA approved to relieve many signs of digestive distress like inflammation and ulcers. Some marketed digestive enzyme supplements even include warnings that those with serious existing intestinal or digestive distress should not take them.

Digestive enzyme supplements can aid digestion, which leads to better nutritional absorption and better immune health, skin tone, and overall energy level. Like vitamin supplements, digestive enzyme supplements should be chosen carefully. You may opt to consult your general practitioner, physician, or gastroenterologist to choose digestive enzyme supplements that could work for you.

Bromelain and Papain in Digestive Enzyme Supplements

One of the more common ingredients in digestive enzyme supplements is a pineapple-derived enzyme called bromelain. Bromelain has been used for medicinal purposes in a number of capacities and most of them relate to the digestion or breaking down of proteins. Bromelain is approved as an ingredient in products used to debride wounds. It is also a common ingredient in meat tenderizer products.

Bromelain is a protease enzyme that exists throughout the pineapple plant, but is typically harvested from the fruit’s stem. Its anti-inflammatory capabilities are well documented, but its efficacy as a digestive supplement is in dispute because it is not clear whether it is broken down in the stomach before it really aids digestion. Treating a piece of meat with bromelain (and papain) before cooking and consuming will indeed break down some of the protein in the meat. This alone can aid the digestive process for proteins like red meat that can be difficult for the body to digest properly.

According to studies at the University of Maryland Medical Center, bromelain has been shown to relieve heartburn and nausea from indigestion. In that capacity, bromelain does appear to be most effective when taken with other digestive enzyme supplements like amylase or lipase. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, bromelain could also potentially aid treatment of inflamed intestines from adverse reactions to food or Adrenal Fatigue-induced intestinal swelling.

Papain’s Digestive Enzymatic Qualities

A cut papaya. Papayas contain papain, an enzyme commonly found in digestive enzyme supplements that aid in digestion.Papain is a papaya derived peptidase enzyme commonly used in digestive enzyme supplements. Because of its tendency to break down tough proteins, its effects are quite similar to that of bromelain. It too is an anti-inflammatory agent, though it has also been used to remedy some parasitic worms, shingles, psoriasis, and could be used alongside traditional treatments for tumors. Papain is also used in a variety of non-food products like cosmetics, toothpaste, contact lens cleaner, and as a stabilizing agent in beer.

Papain’s enzymes break down food the proteins in food much like our body’s natural digestive enzymes do. It would stand to reason that it too would be included with bromelain in several digestive enzyme supplements. Still, like bromelain, it isn’t fully known how to best administer the papain enzymes to keep it from being destroyed in our body’s existing process of digestion before it can do its part to help break food down.

Regardless of these concerns, it is clear that both bromelain and papain enzymes act the same way many of our digestive enzymes do. Like the pepsin that exists naturally in our gut, bromelain and papain physically break down some of the toughest proteins in our favorite foods. It is not clear exactly how much digestive enzyme supplements help with nutrient absorption, but if taken properly, digestive enzyme supplements can be useful in dealing with uncomfortable or distressing side effects from particular foods (beans, dairy, and more) that a body with Adrenal Fatigue may not be able to fully digest.

Without addressing Adrenal Fatigue, the body’s hormones go out of balance and so too do all of the body’s other normal functions. Properly functioning adrenal glands are so important to so many of the systems in the body that dealing with Adrenal Fatigue is necessary. The distressing gastrointestinal symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue may indeed be assuaged with the use of digestive enzyme supplements.

 
© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Questions

There are tablets or drops containing the lactace enzymes to help you control lactose intolerance. However, not all with lactose intolerance can be helped with these tablets or drops. Lactose intolerance is genetically inherited.

Unfortunately, no. Casein, whey, and lactose are also found in goat’s milk.

A cut papaya. Papayas contain papain, an enzyme commonly found in digestive enzyme supplements that aid in digestion.

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3 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    I would appreciate an article to address the link between compromised digestion, building up from mealtime to crossing the bridge of protein assimilation and building collagen. Digestive enzymes and apple cider vinegar or betaine help show some signs of growth yet adequate signs of benefit like hair shine, thickness, skin plumping, dark circles, compromised sleep and the extra need for magnesium, proline and glycine. (Menopause adds to the challenge.)

  • Kathleen Peglau says:

    I was wondering about a good recommendation for an excelleny digestive enzyme proper for adrenal fatigue.Also is it ok to drink one cup of green tea a day as long as it is decaf.Thank you

  • patricia marchant says:

    as I am sensitive to salyilates amines and msg what supplement would be suitable to take