Last Updated: Jan 10, 2019 | Download my FREE Leaky Gut Recovery Guide
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 actually good for?
My answer – absolutely everything!
You see, digestive enzymes take the food we eat and 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, since the body is missing out on all the nutrition locked in the food.
Focusing on digestive enzymes can be a game changer, so let’s dive in.
P.S. to discover my very best ideas, download a copy of my free leaky gut recovery guide here.
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5 surprising ways digestive enzymes can help with leaky gut
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.
Doesn’t our body make digestive enzymes already?
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, can 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!
Can’t I just eat more foods rich in digestive enzymes?
Foods like sauerkraut, kefir, avocado, bananas and pineapple will naturally carry a good amount of digestive enzymes themselves.
But these tend to be only the type of enzymes needed to digest that specific food. eg avocados come with lipase enzymes, which help digest the fat in the avocado. So it is not going to also help tremendously with the digestion of other foods you eat with it.
The other big thing with these types of enzyme-rich foods is that they tend to also be high in sugar. eg a banana will give you about 14g of sugar. So any enzyme benefits received are often off set by the sugar.
Whilst there are other foods that are enzyme-rich, most of them are either grain based or tend to need cooking.
The problem with grains and leaky gut is obvious. And the problem with cooking other foods is that due to the heating process you basically kill the natural digestive enzymes in them.
How eating less can help your digestive system reboot
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.
My 7 favorite eating tricks to instantly digest your food better
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
- Limit liquids – Before sitting down to eat, I would make sure to limit my liquids. So that means not drinking too much water, tea etc in the 20 minutes preceding my meal. The reason for this is that liquids can dilute our stomach acid, and thus decrease our gut’s ability to digest and breakdown food in the first stage of digestion.
- Relax – During this time I’d also do 5 minutes of meditation or light breathing exercises. Basically the idea is to get myself out of any stressed mindset from work, so that my system can give its full focus towards digesting when I start eating.
- Enzyme supplement – As I sit down to eat, I would take a digestive enzyme supplement like this one. Sending a few extra of the good guys down there will give me a great head start.
- Mindful eating – Then I would start eating and making sure to have no external stimulation (eg TV, walking, internet etc). i.e. just me and my food. This monk-like focus might sound extreme, but in doing this I’ll ensure my body starts the enzyme production asap (especially with amylase enzymes in my saliva) and once again, less stress will mean the body can really focus on digestion.
- Chew, chew, chew – Whilst eating I’d chew every bite 20 times. Just like a mini Gandhi, who famously said ‘chew your liquid and drink your meals’. By pulverising my food better, my stomach acid and enzymes will have less break down work to do. So as you can see it really is a team effort, and the more we do, the better the team does!
- Hot liquids (if needed) – Throughout my meal I would continue to limit liquids. If I do want to take a few sips of liquid, I’d tend towards a hot drink like tea. That’s because cold water can tend to slow digestion, eg it can solidify fats in the foods we’re eating. Not great team work!
- Relax a bit more – Finally, after finishing my meal, I would do 5-10 minutes of meditation and light breathing exercises. The important thing with any breathing exercises at this point, is to really make sure they’re light and not belly-implodingly heavy! Breath focused meditation is a sweet spot.
Admittedly, this mini Buddha-Gandhi lovechild eating routing doesn’t always happen. Life has a way of compressing eating windows from time to time!
But when I suffered leaky gut I made sure to at least pay careful attention to my liquid intake before, during and after a meal. This one simple trick can really works wonders!
Why taking a digestive enzyme supplement can help
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 likely 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.
4 signs you may need to supplement with digestive enzymes
1) Unusual stool
If you find yourself depositing alien-looking stool into ye olde throne rather often, you might well be struggling to digest foods properly.
Now you could work with your doctor to do a formal stool test. As this would take a very close look to see if foods are being sufficiently broken down into nutrients or not.
But if you want to save yourself the money, then just keep an eye on your poop!
Unusual stools may indicate poor digestion, especially if they are:
- Too runny or with an oily slick appearance on the surface of the water in the toilet
- Too buoyant
- Too coarse, especially if to the point you see bits of whole foods in your stool
- Too infrequent, ie constipation
2) Excessive gas
If your partner is just about ready to adopt the family dog out because you’ve been passing the blame to poor puppy McSmoogles for all your farts, then it might be a sign of poor digestion!
This is especially true if you find yourself passing a lot of wind when you have NOT been eating the typical gas-causing culprits like garlic, beans, dairy and other high FODMAP foods, or excess fiber or protein.
Supplementing with digestive enzymes can help with gas, even when you’re eating a few of the usual gas culprits, which is pretty cool! For example…
- Lactase enzymes can help break down dairy’s troublesome lactose
- Alpha galactosidase enzymes can support break down of fiber rich foods like beans
- Protease enzymes can aid with protein digestion
So leave poor McSmoogles alone, and just grab yourself a quality supplement with these enzymes in it, like Pure Enzymes.
3) Frequent bloating
If you find yourself knocking around with a mini food baby in your belly after eating a fairly normal meal, you are likely experiencing poor digestion, especially in terms of speed.
I know for me personally, the clearest sign I needed to supplement with enzymes was bloating. That constant feeling of pressure in my stomach, even when I hadn’t eaten 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’ (as I like to fondly call it) and relived the pressure. This of course had a flow on effect, which felt great too if you know what I mean!
4) Many food intolerances
If you find yourself responding badly to a lot of different foods (eg gas, reflux, diarrhea etc), it may also be down to poor digestion.
Supplementing with digestive enzymes can have a dramatic impact on intolerances because they deliver more of the specific enzymes you need to break down these foods, especially harder to digest ones, like those in dairy as we talked about above.
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 slightly 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. Here’s how it looked…
As you can see from the above graphic, this approach saw me taking double the label recommendation before each meal (as that’s when I was able to say goodbye to post-meal bloating!).
Thankfully this was only necessary for approx 4 weeks. After which time my body was happy with just 1 before each meal.
During my periods of poor digestive health (ie those first 4 weeks) I also opted to take digestive enzymes 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, and take no enzymes with small meals like a bowl of soup or a green shake.
So basically if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably want to take a little more than the label recommends during the first few weeks and then see how you go.
Particularly because the main reason I see people report little success with digestive enzymes is simply because they are under dosing.
But with all of that said, it really comes down to the potency of the digestive enzyme supplement you take. ie high quality / potent formulas like this one, will require less capsules, than standard enzyme formulas.
When should I take digestive enzymes – before, during or after a meal?
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 when you sit down for your meal.
Sometimes I forget to take them of course. And when that happens I’ll just take one when I remember. There is no harm in taking one half way through a meal or even at the end, it just may not help as much with digestion as it would otherwise.
Of course, some people also take them in between meals on purpose. Their goal is not to aid digestion though. Instead, they are using them for detoxification benefits.
You see, when taken on an empty stomach and not near food, enzymes (especially protease enzymes that break down protein) will hit your bloodstream and they’ll work to remove toxins and waste, thereby helping with inflammation and giving your liver and immune system some much needed help.
The coolest thing of all is that they are very selective.
Best digestive enzyme supplement 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.
1) Choose your source of enzymes
a) Fruit based digestive enzymes, 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. And most good enzyme supplements, do include some Papain and Bromelain in them as an insurance policy of sorts.
b) Animal based digestive enzymes, 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, especially when it comes to digestion of protein and breaking down of food at the first stage of digestion (in the stomach).
Unfortunately, there can be some issues with their stability, i.e. they may not survive the harsh acidic environment of our stomachs as well as other enzymes.
c) Plant based digestive enzymes – 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…
…as 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.
2) Choose your types of enzymes
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.
a) Enzymes for protein digestion
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.
b) Enzymes for fat digestion
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!
c) Enzymes for carb digestion
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.
d) Enzymes for fiber digestion
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!
3) Choose your potency of enzymes
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.
Importantly, you need to look at enzyme activity, NOT mg, when assessing potency. That’s because activity levels show how much the enzyme can digest, as opposed to simply how much it weighs.
Many supplement companies out there rely on you not knowing this, so they boast about dose weight. (Hint: if they do this, their enzymes are usually weak in terms of potency/activity measures).
Measuring potency is important for us because 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 potency targets for the 4 big enzymes, because if a product hits these benchmarks, it will likely do the same for the other enzymes in the formula. Note: these are ‘per serving’ potency targets.
So ideally you want to find a product that has 20,000 HUT (protease), 1000 or more FIP (lipase), 5000 DU (amylase) and 250 or more CU (cellulase).
If a formula is hitting those targets for the 4 kings of enzymes it will likely also do this for the other supporting enzymes.
So which digestive enzyme supplement 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.
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