Can digestive enzymes really help with leaky gut? And if so, what type of digestive enzyme supplement is best to take? Let’s take a plain English look…
Whilst L-Glutamine and probiotics steal all the leaky gut spotlight (there is such a thing, I think), our little friends digestive enzymes go unappreciated.
Most people write into me and wonder…
…Digestive enzymes, what are they good for?
You see, digestive enzymes take the food we eat, then break it down into individual nutrients so our body can actually absorb and use the goodness in the food we eat, eg amino acids, vitamins, minerals etc.
Without digestive enzymes you could eat like Gwyneth Paltrow all day long and still be unhealthy, because the body is missing out on all the goodness in the foods.
Importantly for those of us with leaky gut, it is the absorption and utilization of nutrients that will help repair our gut lining and thus contribute to stopping leaky gut itself. And in general, help us get more energy since normal biological processes can occur. (Less need for multivitamins supplements too!)
Whilst the proper breakdown of food particles in your stomach, will ensure less irritation and thus inflammation of the gut lining.
And most of all, that large molecules are not making their way through your gut and into the bloodstream, to then wreak havoc on your immune system. Sure, some molecules will still be getting through whilst your gut is repairing, but since they are smaller thanks to digestive enzymes, they are not going to do as much damage.
Meanwhile, digestive enzymes also work to clean up the mucosal lining – and even your bloodstream when they pass through – by removing toxins, bad bacteria and damaged cells. This added help is fantastic as it gives your liver and immune system a much needed break! (Like a spa weekend for your vital organs, kinda)
Digestive enzymes have one more trick up their sleeves.
They can also help the body weed itself of pathogens that may contribute to leaky gut. This is because bacteria and parasites are made of proteins. And protein-digesting enzymes (protease) will thus be able to break them down and flush them out.
You can find my favorite digestive enzymes supplement here. It is broad spectrum, powerful, plant-based and correctly dosed. Just as importantly, it is 3rd party verified gluten free, dairy free and soy free. Perfect for those of us with sensitive guts! I talk more about it at the bottom of this article.
Okay great, but doesn’t our body make digestive enzymes already?
Yeah, it sure does. In fact, a healthy body is pretty good at producing digestive enzymes by itself thanks to your saliva grands, stomach, pancreas and small intestine.
Unfortunately if you are suffering from leaky gut, then the systemic inflammation of your digestive tract and damage done to the microvilli along your intestinal lining, along with related conditions like Celiac disease or Crohn’s or SIBO etc, will reduce your ability to produce digestive enzymes.
And when you add in underlying problems often suffered by people with leaky gut, eg chronic stress, alcohol/NSAID/acid-blockers use, then you really start to see the digestive enzyme factory close down!
Aging doesn’t help either. In fact, by the time you hit middle age (45-55) your enzyme production decreases by approx 50%.
Can’t you just ‘eat’ more digestive enzymes?
Foods like sauerkraut, avocado, bananas and pineapple will naturally carry a good amount of digestive enzymes themselves. And you should eat them in good amounts.
Whilst there are lots of other foods that are enzyme-rich, but unfortunately the minute you start cooking foods – something you have to do with most foods when your gut is in poor health – you basically kill the digestive enzymes in them.
Also, you can’t realistically eat enough enzyme-rich raw foods to make up for the deficiency in enzyme production caused by leaky gut.
You could of course consider the very best enzyme rich foods, but guess what?
They are grains. And for those of us with leaky gut, that’s a serious no no.
Instead of eating more, you should eat less
Here’s the real trick to getting enough digestive enzymes to help heal your leaky gut…
…Stop the leakiness and thus inflammation in the first place, as this will help your body produce more digestive enzymes by itself.
And to do that you simply need to eat less. I thoroughly recommend you try the elimination diet I talk about in the free leaky gut recovery guide.
To sum it up: no grains, legumes, dairy, sugar etc.
Of course eating less foods is not quite enough to get your body back to normal and producing digestive enzymes in sufficient amounts.
You should also reinoculate your gut with good bacteria, by eating probiotic-rich foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, and taking a multi-strain high-strength probiotic, like this one my research team and I designed.
It is also smart to address other underlying causes of leaky gut too, like chronic stress, excessive alcohol or NSAID use etc.
One specific tip I cannot stress enough is how you eat.
These days I see so many people eating on the go or sitting down for 5 minutes to vacuum up their lunch, and I’m not surprised gut health is in decline.
That’s because this style of ‘eat-n-run’ means the body is constantly under stress – both in terms of physically moving and the mind never resting. And when the body is in this sort of constant ‘low level fight or flight’ mode, it is not allocating resources to digestive enzyme production…instead it’s too busy trying to survive!
So instead of eating your salad with a side serving of ‘fight or flight’, try some good ol ‘rest and digest’. (Yes, that’s lame, and I hope its lameness helps you remember it).
In a perfect world I would eat every meal like this.
First, 5 minutes meditation. Then slowly eat my meal with no stimulation (TV, walking, internet etc). Chew every bite 20 times, Gandhi ‘chew your liquid and drink your meals’ style! Limit liquids somewhat, since these can dilute digestive enzymes. Then after finishing, 10 minutes of meditation and breathing exercises.
Admittedly, this doesn’t always happen. But when I suffered leaky gut I made sure to at least do deep breathing before and after a meal. It works wonders! And will help your body produce more digestive enzymes the natural way.
But even then, supplementation may be helpful. Here’s why…
The right diet, the right way of eating and the right lifestyle, may still not be enough to help your body produce enough digestive enzymes. That’s because leaky gut, and its knock on effects, are a tough adversary to overcome.
And although I do think with enough time you could probably beat it without supplements, why wait? (I know when my gut was at it’s worst, patience was not a virtue I had time for!)
Also, unlike many other supplements for leaky gut, the very first time you take digestive enzymes you will notice it. Not in terms of noticing more nutrient absorption, but rather in terms of not noticing many of the after effects of eating with a leaky gut, eg heartburn, stomach pains etc. Everyone is of course different, but this is my experience with taking them.
Since digestive enzyme supplements will help break your food down faster AND in your stomach (not intestines) you also avoid larger food particles later tearing up your gut lining / intestines as they make their way out of your stomach.
In fact, you’ll notice that feeling of having ‘a brick in your stomach’ can disappear within days of starting to take digestive enzymes.
Digestive enzyme supplements also help leaky gut, because they give your GI tract a head start!
Unsurprisingly, supplementing with digestive enzymes can also help your body clean up Candida yeast overgrowth, since yeast-fighting enzymes like proteases can break down the shell of the yeast cells, exposing them so anti-fungal products can then finish them off.
5 signs you may need to supplement with digestive enzymes for leaky gut
- Your stool test results show foods not being sufficiently broken down into nutrients. Very objective test, but many doctors will not bother with these tests. And to be honest, neither would I, because the signs #2 and #3 below are super easy to look for and quite accurate. (Save your money)
- Your poop is off. Too runny or with an oily appearance, would suggest undigested fats. Too buoyant, over the course of several days, would similarly suggest digestive issues. And too coarse, to the point you see bits of whole foods in your stool, would obviously indicate poor breakdown of foods. Whilst, no poop (constipation) can also indicate help is needed!
- After eating a meal you feel like you have a brick sitting in your stomach, or you just feel overly bloated and/or gassy. Obviously this sign is moot if you’ve just eaten a massive TGI-McFunsters meal! It applies more to normal sized main meals.
- After eating a few bites you feel full.
- You suffer from various food intolerances. Supplementing with digestive enzymes can have a dramatic impact on intolerances the very first day you take them. But some intolerances take several days to make their way out of your system, so if not immediately, then within a week you should feel the benefits of digestive enzymes.
I know for me personally, the clearest sign I needed to supplement was bloating. That constant feeling of pressure in your stomach, even though you haven’t eaten that much, was all I needed to confirm my suspicions.
But of course, the easiest way for me to know for sure, was to try taking some digestive enzyme supplements and see how I then felt – whilst maintaining a similar eating pattern.
And wow did I feel a difference!
It was almost as though someone popped my little buddha belly balloon and all the pressure was gone. This of course had a flow on effect, which felt great too.
How much digestive enzymes should I take?
For me personally, label recommendations were not quite enough when I was experiencing gut issues.
Instead, I opted for a higher dose, which was based on how my body responded to the pills.
Through some experimentation I basically kept upping the dosage until the signs of poor digestion / breakdown of food, disappeared.
This approach saw me taking double the label recommendation before each meal (that’s when I was able to say goodbye to post-meal bloating!).
Thankfully this was only necessary for approx 4-5 weeks. After which time my body was happy with just 1 before each meal.
During my periods of poor digestive health I also opted to take them even with smaller meals, eg a protein shake.
But now that my gut is in better health I only take 1 pill with each main meal.
So basically what I’m saying is you’ll probably want to take more than the label recommends and see how you go. Because the main reason I see people report little success with digestive enzymes, is simply because they are under dosing.
When should I take digestive enzymes?
There’s a lot of debate about when is the best time. Should you take them between meals, just before, during or even after?
From my experience and that of readers, the best time seems to be right before your meal.
Sometimes I forget to take them. When that happens I’ll just take one when I can. There is no harm in taking one later, it just may not help as much with digestion.
Of course, some people also take them in between meals, but not as a digestion aid per se. Instead, they are using them for detoxification benefits.
You see, when taken on an empty stomach and not near food, the digestive enzymes (especially protease that breakdown protein) will hit your bloodstream and they’ll work to remove toxins and waste, thereby reducing inflammation and giving your liver and immune system some much needed help. The coolest thing of all is that they are very selective.
So whilst they’ll hunt down toxins and flush them out of the body, they’ll leave your good tissue and healthy red blood cells to carry on.
Best digestive enzymes for leaky gut
There are so many different digestive enzyme supplements on the market that it can be extremely confusing to work out which is best for you.
In fact, if you look at most brands they often sell half a dozen different enzyme supplements themselves!
Here’s the good news…
…There are actually only 3 different sources of digestive enzymes. So once you work out which one of these three is best for you, things get a lot easier.
- Fruit based, eg papaya/papain or pineapple/bromelain. Some people react really well to these. They seem to get the job done. But out of the three types of digestive enzymes, these are arguably the weakest. And if you have leaky gut, this may not work hard enough to help your system feel better. You could start out with these and see how you feel of course.
- Animal based, eg pancreatin. Obviously if you’re vegetarian, or even vegan, skip this. However, for the rest of us these digestive enzymes can have a good impact on our digestion. Unfortunately, there are some concerns about their stability, i.e. they may not survive the harsh acidic environment of our stomachs very well.
- Plant based (plant or microbe/fungal/seed based). We’ve arrived. This is the Nirvana of digestive enzymes. I’m actually serious. Because with plant based digestive enzymes we enjoy a triple treat. They survive digestion well, have a broad spectrum of action (importantly they start working in the stomach just BEFORE the food hits the intestines and approx 1 hour before your own pancreatic enzymes show up) and unlike animal based digestive enzymes, these are much more stable.
Now you know the source you want to go for, its time to work out which types of enzymes you want. For example, there are enzymes for breaking down proteins called proteases, and then there are ones for breaking down fats called lipases etc.
If you search for digestive enzymes online you’ll find many only offer one or two types of enzymes, whilst others offer multiple enzymes.
So what’s best?
Easy. Always go for a product with multiple enzymes (ideally over 10) and that covers all 4 food groups.
To help you work this out, here are the 4 types of food and my favorite enzymes within each group.
- Protein – to digest your meat, fish, eggs etc, you’ll want a product with protease enzymes. Ideally you would look for a mix of alkaline, neutral and acid functioning proteases, so that you’ve got support digesting protein regardless of your stomach’s acidity levels.
- Fat – to help you here, you’ll want an enzyme supplement with lipase. Good news is there is nothing else to look for here. Lipase enzymes for the win!
- Carbs – it gets a bit more complicated here. So as a starting point, you’ll want to find an enzyme product with amylase enzymes. They are very important for breaking down starches into sugars and they supplement the enzymes naturally created in our saliva. But if you want to make sure you’re really breaking down all carbs, including sugars (normal sugar, milk sugar, malt sugar etc), then you should also look out for glucoamylase, lactase and invertase/sucrase enzymes as well. There are a few others, but these are the big hitters.
- Fiber – like carbs, this can be a bit of a head scratcher. But once again, the key enzyme to look out for is cellulase. This lil superhero is going to help us break down the fiber in fruits, vegetables, grains and seeds – especially important for getting all the goodness from our veggies. Some other useful enzymes here would be hemicellulase, xylanase, pectinase, phytase and alpha-Galactosidase. That last one should really help with veggies and avoiding ye olde ‘blame it on the dog’ farts!
So now you know what type of enzyme source to go for (plant based) and which specific enzymes to look out for (a mix of 10 or more enzymes to cover all 4 food groups), the last thing to think about is potency. i.e. how much of the enzymes are in a product.
After all, with leaky gut you are likely looking for some serious help and weakly dosed supplements are not going to be ideal.
To keep things simple I’ll give some dose targets for the 4 big enzymes above, because if a product hits these benchmarks, it will likely do the same for the other enzymes. Note: these are ‘per serving’ dose targets.
So definitely look for 20,000+ HUT (protease), 1000+ FIP (lipase), 4000+ DU (amylase) and 250+ CU (cellulase). If a formula is hitting those targets for the 4 kings of enzymes – or better yet, exceeding them – it will likely do so for the other supporting enzymes.
So which digestive enzyme do I recommend?
Up until recently I struggled to find a specific product that met all the points above, ie plant based, 10+ multiple enzymes & correctly dosed.
Unfortunately the market is just saturated with weak, low quality digestive enzymes.
Worse yet, most of the enzymes on the market contain gluten, dairy and soy – not so great for those of us with leaky gut right!
So together with my research team at Essential Stacks we decided to create our own high quality, premium digestive enzyme complex. It contains 18 different plant-based digestive enzymes in each capsule, including all of the enzymes mentioned above, and is dosed even higher than the amounts recommended above. That means it provides you with support across all food groups and in really nice amounts.
Just as importantly, the team and I worked extremely hard to make sure this product was gluten free, dairy free AND soy free. And gee, this was not easy – thanks in no small part to the sources of fermentation media used in the enzyme creation process. But after spending months working with an expert team of formulators and the most experienced enzymes manufacturer in the USA, we got there!
I’m very proud of the product we’ve made, but I wanted you to be 100% sure it met our claims. So we had it independently tested for allergens by SORA Laboratories LLC – perhaps the best allergen tester of enzymes in the country. And I’m delighted to say it passed with flying colors. Making it exactly the kind of product I would take and give to my family – and now recommend to you.
Because this formula has all the enzymes you want and none of the allergens you don’t, we decided to call it Pure Enzymes. And if you’re interested you can learn more about it here on Amazon.
Want a simple solution for your leaky gut that actually works?
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