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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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October 10 2017

Enzyme Supplements: Uses, Suggestions, and Alternatives

By Mark Sisson
24 Comments

Enzyme word cloud conceptFew would disagree that a Primal way of life advocates simplicity above all else. Nutritious foods, strategic movement, and an aversion to stress bordering on (healthy) obsession.

This “simple is good” mentality works swimmingly most of the time. Aligning our lifestyle to our evolved biology allows us to achieve a modern semblance of that all-important homeostasis, and I generally see no reason to tinker if it ain’t broke.

But, unfortunately, it’s not always black and white….

Monoculture continues to favor size and sexiness over nutrient density in our agricultural system, making it harder for us to extract the vitamins and minerals we need from the food we eat. And these days, life tends to include more sitting and stress than we can always fend off, regardless of our good strategies and intentions. 

This leads to something of a dilemma: subsist on simplicity and shake your head at the non-purists, or supplement to fill in the gaps of your otherwise stellar Primal pursuits. Digestive enzymes are one such gap filler, boosting digestive efficiency and ensuring greater nutrient absorption.

I’ve mentioned enzyme supplements on occasion in the past, and plenty of Primal folks have raised questions about them from time to time.

The Big Picture on Enzyme Purpose

Enzymes can be grouped into three broad categories: digestive enzymes, metabolic enzymes, and food-based enzymes. Digestive enzymes, the types you’ll see as enzyme supplements in your supermarket or health store, receive the lion’s share of our attention. As you can probably imagine from the name, they catalyze the breakdown of food into smaller, more absorbable molecules. 

The enzyme supplements you buy in-store are copies of the enzymes your body produces in-house. The pancreas is where most of the enzyme production takes place, but there’s also a decent amount released in saliva and in the stomach. These enzymes facilitate the biochemical reactions in the GI tract that physically enable the body to utilize the nutrients we eat, helping to save energy in the process.

Whereas digestive enzymes spend their days outside of cells, metabolic enzymes work their magic from inside cell walls. Once again, the pancreas is where it’s at for metabolic enzyme production, whereupon they set to work ensuring cell replenishment and reproduction.

The final frontier for enzymes is those that aren’t produced inside the body at all, but are in fact present in the foods we eat. When you hear raw food advocates talking about how heating consumables destroys the enzymes in those foods, these are the enzymes they’re defending. And they’re not wrong: raw foods contain far more enzymes than those that have been fried, baked, grilled or nuked. 

Many nutritionists in this camp believe that the majority of the food we eat should be raw, purely based on the premise that these food-based enzymes really give the digestive system a helping hand. Consuming more of these enzymes eases the pressure on internal enzyme production, ensuring more efficient digestion and preventing depletion of metabolic enzymes in the pancreas. I don’t offer this to say you shouldn’t ever cook your food (I’m not a raw food advocate and enjoy a mix of cooked/uncooked food each day.), but it does illuminate the power of enzymes for digestive health and nutrient absorption.

When It All Goes Wrong

Most people who switch over to paleo or Primal assume that their digestive issues will melt away, never to return again. The problem is, they’re generally transitioning from a diet steeped in ultra-heated, ultra processed foods with virtually no intact enzymes.

As a result, their systems bear the burden and exhaustion of low food-based enzyme input, chronically elevated cortisol, food intolerances, GI inflammation, and perhaps low stomach acid. Throw in an autoimmune disease and almost guaranteed gut inflammation, and their digestive health will undoubtedly be less than ideal. 

In response, enzyme supplementation might be an effective strategy for those who struggle with digestion, particularly in the transition to a healthy, whole foods, Primal diet. 

Where Enzymes Can Help

Researchers have uncovered a whopping 3000 or so varieties of enzymes, but those same folks humbly admit there may be as many 50,000 still to uncover.

Exogenous (a.k.a. lab-created and orally-supplemented) enzymes have been used to good effect in treating lactose intolerance and celiac disease, regulating testosterone, and plenty more besides. In many cases, patients who supplemented with digestive enzymes to treat a given malaise were able to wean themselves off enzyme supplementation after a time and continue on their way, symptom free.

Surprisingly, many of these same enzymes have also demonstrated the impressive ability to speed recovery and muscle damage after intense exercise, lower inflammation, and ease pain. But that’s a whole new kettle of fish and one which merits its own dedicated post.

In any case, these were specific digestive enzyme supplementations for clearly-defined health problems. Things get a little murkier when examining the average consumer suffering from the odd bout of gas or less-than-ideal stool.

As is always the case, everyone is somewhat different in their responses.

First, know that certain enzymes fulfill different roles in the GI tract. The big players are:

  • Protease, for breaking down protein
  • Lipase, for fats
  • Amylase, for carbs
  • Cellulase, for fiber
  • Lactase, for lactose
  • Maltase, for conversion of complex sugars to glucose
  • Sucrase, for most other sugars
  • Phytase, for B-vitamin conversion and all-round digestive goodness

That’s a lot to take in, and there’s more nuance to it. Nonetheless, if you wanted to apply it 100% literally, it could look like this…. 

Eating more fatty meat these days but not feeling like it’s settling well? Maybe step up the protease and lipase supplementation. Suspect you have lactose intolerance? Lactase enzyme supplementation might be just the ticket. Not sure what your problem is, but your stomach doesn’t seem to appreciate food right now? A broad-spectrum enzyme supplement containing all of the above is probably your best bet. 

But let me stress—I don’t believe enzyme supplementation should be a stand-in for personal experimentation with dietary particulars. The fact is, some of us do better without certain items in our diets, lactose being one. Others may be able to eat a little of everything but thrive more with adjusted proportions. Enzyme supplementation, particularly as a short-term strategy, can be one tool in your dietary attunement.

Personally, if you’re not able to drill down and identify your digestive Achilles heel but want to give enzymes a go, I’d probably try the broad spectrum approach. Even if you don’t necessarily need to top up concentrations of a certain enzyme in your GI, short-term enzyme supplementation isn’t likely to produce any side effects. Find a supplement that offers decent levels of the enzymatic big players along with betaine HCL, which can aid stomach acidification and hence improve digestion, and you might actually look forward to meals again.

It’s also worth knowing that your enzyme supplement in question could be sourced from one or more of 4 “parents”: plant, animal, bacteria and fungus. Because they’re cheaper to produce and a whole lot less volatile, fungal and bacterial enzyme sources are many times more common than those from plant and animal sources.

That being said, certain plant enzymes like papain and bromelain are now gaining popularity—likely in part because they’re more marketable, but also because they have a wider pH tolerance. Animal-derived enzymes have also historically been used to good effect in the treatment of certain disorders, most notably pancreatic insufficiency.

Unless you can find a plant enzyme supplement that ensures fortification from the ravages of stomach acid via a good enteric coating, fungal enzymes are a good bet.

Dosage and Quality Considerations

Toxicity

As far as supplements go, orally administered enzymes are pretty darn safe. Toxicity complications usually don’t arise unless a person is repeatedly knocking back well over the recommended dosage, and even then the side effects are typically limited to gastrointestinal upset. Robb Wolf has mentioned that in times of GI distress, he’d start off at a dosage 6 capsules (3 times the usual recommended dose) then work his way back down. I’ve talked to others, particularly those who’ve had a gall bladder removed, who take much more than that without issue. That said, there’s no reason to take more than you truly need for the results you want. 

Most cases of enzyme supplementation gone wrong can usually be traced back to extreme food sensitivities: classic examples include allergic reactions to porcine substances, bromelain or Aspergillus species. This probably comes back more to the quality of the enzyme supplement producer than the enzymes themselves, whereby shoddy QA/QC might not catch metabolites and by-products that could adversely react with the consumer…all the more reason to seek out a reputable brand.

Stability

Products that offer enzyme supplements from sources that are pH-tolerant and less likely to become denatured in harsh environments can negate the need for enteric coatings and are generally more stable in any case. As mentioned earlier, certain plant-sourced enzymes like papain can tolerate a wider pH range, but fungal enzymes are generally more resistant, have a broader spectrum of application, and don’t rely on enteric coatings to do their thing.

As an aside, if you’ve set your sights on a more fragile plant or animal-sourced enzyme, choosing a product that contains decent amounts of betaine HCL may be a good bet: the HCL helps your stomach to maintain consistently low pH levels, which should ensure the enzyme coating remains intact.

Potency

This is where things get a little complicated. Virtually all supplements (with perhaps the exception of probiotic cultures) are based on a weight-defined system, be that milligrams (mg), micrograms (mcg) or otherwise. This makes sense when it comes to vitamins and minerals, as weight is directly proportional to the amount of the compound in question.

Not so with enzyme supplements. As Ben Greenfield has said, enzymes are more accurately measured by units of activity and potency rather than unit weight. With this in mind, judging the potency of an enzyme blend can be achieved not by noting how many milligrams there are of each strain, but how many Food Chemical Codex (FCC) units each strain presents. Common FCC units of measurement include HUT (Hemoglobin Unit Tyrosine base) and USP (United States Pharmocopia).

Compare FCC units of individual enzymes (i.e. protease, lipase, etc.) to get an idea of which is most potent. But remember that potency doesn’t always imply quality, and that starting at a lower dose then working your way up is probably a wise course of action.

Additives

Back to simplicity. You likely know the drill for seeking out high quality supplements: avoid those undesirable “other ingredients” like gluten, dairy, cornstarch, soy and ambiguous compounds like “tablet coating.” Those with suspected food allergies should be pickier with these additives than others, and don’t be afraid to shop around.

Digestive Enzyme Alternatives

I’ve certainly got no issue with enzyme supplementation (I include a digestive enzyme formula in the Primal Master Formula), but if you’re looking for alternatives then there are plenty of options.

As I mentioned earlier, aiming for more food from raw sources is a critical part of realigning your digestive efficiency. But within that raw food spectrum are certain enzymatic powerhouses that could provide an alternative almost as powerful as dedicated enzyme supplements.

Papaya and pineapple, as the respective sources for the enzymes papain and bromelain, are a good start. Both papain and bromelain are proteolytic enzymes that efficiently break down long-chain proteins into simpler forms, making their parent fruits a good choice for the average Primal meat-eater. Other potent sources of plant-based enzymes include kiwifruit, avocado, and raw honey. Coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil also purportedly aid internal enzyme production.

I haven’t seen enough evidence to support the claim that raw meat and raw dairy products provide digestive enzymes that our own body can utilize, but there are other reasons why it might be worth giving either a shot anyway.

Beyond enzyme-rich foods, there are other easy steps you can take to support your body’s enzyme production and to streamline digestion in general. As you already know, leafy greens should be a significant part of each day’s Primal vegetable intake, but here’s another reason to give yourself a generous heaping: those greens contain ample cellulose, which attaches to toxic bile and keeps it moving out the back door. Cinnamon, or so the research would have us believe, performs a similar bile acid-binding role.

If general digestive upset is your problem, upping your bone broth consumption is also probably a good idea. The proline and glycine present (especially if you make your own extra-strong batches at home or use a quality collagen supplement) help to alleviate inflammation in the GI tract and regulate digestion, while the ample nutrients in a good cup of broth help to restock your reserves and rebuild damaged intestinal walls.

Finally, if your digestive issues are being caused by low stomach acid (this is more common than you think), you can try using a betaine HCL supplement short-term or employ natural alternatives if you prefer. Try 1-2 tablespoons of either raw apple cider vinegar or fresh-squeezed lemon juice in a glass of water before meals to stimulate your stomach’s digestive juices and minimize gaseousness post-feast.

And, of course, don’t forget ample prebiotic and probiotic sources in your diet for overall gut biome health

Thanks for reading, everyone. Do you supplement with enzymes? What’s been your experience with them? Any particular products or blends you’d recommend? Be sure to share your thoughts below.

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24 thoughts on “Enzyme Supplements: Uses, Suggestions, and Alternatives”

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  1. What about digestive bitters? If I need enzymes, I’d rather signal my body it needs to produce it rather than receive it from an external source…

    I’m very curious about how digestive enzymes can impact our health beyond the digestive system though!

    1. Exactly my thoughts; I would be very interested in an article on this (hint hint, Mark :))

    2. Remy – Bitters are so helpful (in my experience). I love some lemon water, ACV, saurkruat juice, pickle juice, or even some dandelion juice (or just chew a leaf) for my bitters. It REALLY helps things get moving

  2. Just took my enzymes.i was under the impression that enzyme production decreases with age. At 58 yo female doing heavy lifting, crossfit yoga and hiking , I feel they help digest my meals. That are not the fountain of youth, but in my n=1 testing I feel they give me my edge. Peace.

  3. Traditional peoples, Native Americans and early ancestral healers believed that eating the organs and glands from a healthy animal would strengthen and support the health of the corresponding organ of the individual. Grass fed pancreas is teeming with enzymes that can provide great benefit for those seeking targeted support in harmony with nature — the old fashioned way, the way that our early ancestors did. In other words, grass fed pancreas is totally primal!

    GRASS FED BEEF PANCREAS CONTAINS…
    – Proteins Exclusively Found And Expressed In Pancreas Tissue
    – Pancreatic Enzymes Required To Break Down Fats (Lipase), Proteins (Protease, Trypsin) and Carbohydrates (Amylase)
    – Colipase & Trypsin, Pancreatic Peptides Needed To Activate Proteolytic Enzymes

    NOTE: The body has several protective measures that prevent bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine. The first is digestive secretions. In particular, hydrochloric acid, bile, and pancreatic enzymes play a critical role in preventing significant numbers of bacteria from migrating up the small intestine. Deficiencies in any of these may promote bacterial overgrowth.

    GRASS FED BEEF PANCREAS SUPPORTS…
    – Pancreas Health Based On “Like Supports Like”
    – Enzyme Production Health
    – Digestive Health
    – Nutrient Assimilation

    NOTE: Pancreatic enzymes may help with food allergies by improving digestion. In order for a food molecule to produce an allergic response it must be a fairly large molecule. In studies performed in the 1930s and 1940s, pancreatic enzymes were shown to be quite effective in preventing food allergies. Typically individuals who do not secrete enough proteases will suffer from multiple food allergies.

    Get to know your local farmer or butcher. Be sure to only source healthy pancreas from grass fed and grass finished animals. If you go the supplement route, get the freeze-dried variety… this ensures that you get more of the heat sensitive vitamins, minerals, co-factors and of course, enzymes that make this gland so incredibly nourishing.

    1. LK I am intrigued by this, my one concern is organs and organ supplements tend to be high in iron, which I try to avoid as older guys like me do not want to accumulate too much iron in the blood as it can lead to heart problems. I know I should give blood more often; I do take supplements like quercetin and curcumin which are natural iron chelators. What sayeth you?

      1. Good to see you my friend. Pancreas doesn’t really have iron in it… you’re looking at a mere 0.5 mg of iron per ounce. That’s really nothing. I’d suggest that you avoid spleen if you’re looking to avoid iron because spleen has 5 X’s more iron than liver. That being said, Chris Masterjohn recommends for just about every human being to include liver in their life because it’s so darn nourishing. Liver has about 2 mg of iron per ounce… that’s not much either but everything in context, right. Masterjohn suggests to eliminate other sources of iron to make room for the most nourishing super food in existence — liver.

        Worst case, use the natural chelators that you already know about… I had not heard of those so thank you for sharing. I know many people that combine dairy / calcium to reduce iron absorption.

        Animals instinctively go for the liver, bone marrow, heart, pancreas and other organs and will often leave the muscle meat for the birds. Heck, even the birds have been known to pick up the bones and drop them from the sky to gain access to the marrow. This is the stuff that our genome grew up on… it’s now missing in the modern diet. Verdict… Pancreas is primal!

        1. Interesting. What do you think of beef spleen? There’s this recipe where it’s cavity is stuffed with chopped liver, heart and spices after which it’s stitched up and cooked. Once cooled, it’s sliced like a steak and grilled.

          HealthyHombre, I hear you.. My way of dealing with high ferritin is to donate blood, which I already did 3 times this year (one more to go).

  4. My favorite enzyme supplements are green papaya and dried papaya seeds. Green papaya is a common vegetable in Thai food. It’s not sweet like ripe papaya. I also dry papaya seed ans use it like a black pepper substitute. I understand raw mushrooms are full of enzymes as well.

  5. Take a couple of spoonfuls of coconut oil and olive oil daily, two cups of bone broth, a variety of pre and probiotics, and I do take one general purpose digestive enzymes capsule after every meal. As an old guy I figure the digestive enzymes won’t hurt LOL. Must admit I don’t eat a lot of raw vegetables, mostly stir fried or lightly steamed (too many raw veggies or salad seems to be kinda hard on my digestive system), but I do eat a fair amount of berries. Also, twice a year I’ll take two mastic gum capsules daily for a month to help keep H. pylori at bay. Had to take them for about two months along with some oregano oil capsules and some extra l. Reuteri when I somehow got a bit of a peptic ulcer and it did the trick. Anyway, everything working well for me knock on wood, best of digestive health to one and all! 🙂

    1. I’ve been dealing with some stomach pain the past couple months after getting serious about low carb/keto for a bit that seems possible to be an ulcer or at least gastritis. I had it once before in my visit a dr a lot days and was given one of the acid reducing drugs, I forget which, and told they’d have to scope it to diagnose for sure anyway but that would be the first step even if it was an ulcer. That helped then but from what I know now isn’t ideal at all. Been taking betaine hcl with pepsin after protein heavy meals and it’s helped but not fixed the issue. Would you mind elaborating on your h. pylori treatment regime? Are there risks? Thanks

      1. LA, if you search on “mastic gum peptic ulcer” (or duodenal ulcer) you’ll see that there are many sources that recommend mastic gum for ulcers. I was not aware of it until I had the need to look for a natural cure. The experts claim that H. pylori causes 90% of peptic / duodenal ulcers and can be very difficult to clear up and often mastic gum does the trick. I think I built up, taking two mastic gums capsules in the morning on an empty stomach, then built up to two twice a day (no side effect whatsoever for me). I did this for two months. For the first two weeks I also took two oregano capsules daily and the first week some colloidal silver (bumped up my probiotics during those two weeks). I also found DGL chewable tablets after each meal to be a godsend. This worked very well for me thank goodness. I believe these natural supplements are very low risk, especially compared to beta blockers and antibiotics, caveat is I am not a medical professional just a humble software engineer. Hope this is useful to you definitely do some research on the topic. I’ll be rooting for you to resolve this, all the best! – George

        1. Thank you, I will look into the things you suggest and see what I can find and afford at the health food store. I’m sure starting a good probiotic would be a good step for me also. (I’ve been drinking tons of kefir but that’s not 100% the same 😉 )

  6. My understanding is that most enzymatic compounds in food are broken down either in cooking or in the digestive system itself (specifically, in stomach acid) and that is why most of the dietary types concerned with enzymes in food are raw-foodists.

  7. Interesting topic, especially for a one-time raw vegan, I still try to consume some raw stuff every day…always have a green drink in the am, so I get the green leafy veggies, and eat a raw carrot every single day. Plus whatever I get from salads, fruit, etc. Totally believe enzyme supplements can be helpful for people, but think they also need to look at balancing their diets. For example, if you feel bad after fatty meats, maybe you’re just eating too much of them. Try cutting back instead of adding a supplement. It all comes back to listening to your body And want to add that when I was loading my self with nothing but raw veggies, fruits and nuts, I pretty much felt like crap. Constantly bloated and uncomfortable. Too much of a good thing is still too much.

  8. AMEN. It has been about 3 years since I really took a deep dive into why my digestion is so bad, and it has been a roller coaster, but one thing has become clear: without digestive enzymes at every meal, I am siiiiiiiick. I originally went on enzymes when my naturopath recommended them and noticed a slight improvement. It wasn’t until a year and a half later when I had a digestive flare (later diagnosed as a mild form of crohn’s) and went to a gastroenterologist, who said ‘Yeah, I don’t know what that is, so stop taking everything and start taking PPIs’. I was skeptical, but after 2-3 years of handling things naturally and on my own, I decided to give modern medicine the old college try. I stopped taking everything and I was nauseous 100% of the time for the next 2 months. 100% of the time. After fasting for my colonoscopy, I decided ‘eff it, I’m taking enzymes again.’ What do you know? I feel fine again the next day, and the next day, and so on. I went back in for my final appointment, and told her about enzymes, and she said ‘You’re the second person today who said digestive enzymes helped their symptoms – tell me more about them.’ WHAT?? Anyway, suffice it to say, I am so grateful for my enzymes which, in combination with a healthy diet and moderately low stress lifestyle, allow me to live with crohn’s virtually symptom free. Thank you for bringing some light to the important topic Mark!

    1. Tori, would you mind sharing what brand of digestive enzymes you use? I also have Crohn’s and I recently tried Digest Gold but it seems to cause indigestion. I suspect due to the high amount of protease which I’ve read can sometimes cause stomach irritation.

    2. I’m interested in which enzymes you’re taking, also. Please reply?

  9. I’ve been on digestive enzymes and betaine HCL for most of the last 10 years. My body doesn’t produce enough of either. When I’m under high stress, I double my usual intake of both to make sure I’m getting the nutrition I put in.
    I also use a different brand/mix of digestive enzymes to help pull out the inflammation in my body. Made a major difference in how ‘full’ or ‘bloated’ my body was, how much movement my spine and joints have.

  10. I am really enjoying reading your blog, and I have signed up to your mailing list to get regular updates.

    One thing I did want to check was whether humans can produce the cellulase enzyme?

    As I understood it, our lack of an enzyme that can digest cellulose is what enables dietary fiber to provide bulk in the diet, and the wide range of health benefits that come with a diet rich in this indigestible component.

  11. This might be my favorite post. I personally suffered as a kid when food stopped going down my throat. It would get stuck right before entering my stomach, come back up, hurt, go back down, hurt, get stuck, repeat… Doctors told me and my mom (I was only 11 years old) that I had Acid Reflux or GERD. I was asked one time only if food seemed to be the cause and I said no since I never wanted to give up my moms Spaghetti with meat balls do the doctor quickly said ok well then you can take prilosec and continue eating whatever I want…..took prilosec and food went down my throat….couple weeks later was told to stop taking prilosec….food got stuck in ym throat again….went back on prilosec….stayed on prilosec…….8 years later STILL TAKING PRILOSEC (and also went through antibiotics and the sort) FINALLY my Mom had the feeling something was wrong that her kid needed a pill everyday. She went into a health food store and walked out with Braggs Raw Organic Apple Cider Vinegar. I stopped the prilosec cold turkey and instantly added some ACV (1 tbsp per 12oz water with meals) and BOOM!!! i COULD EAT AND SWALLOW FOOD!!! That Braggs ACV saved my LIFE. I then began addressing dietary issues (lactose, casein, then gluten) and felt MUCH better then EVER before. Eventually I found my way own ways that worked for me (lots of enzymes, adrenal support, probiotics, antioxidants,) and eventually found the Primal Blueprint. Ever since then, I became a Certified Primal Blueprint Expert and just love the lifestyle. I helped my friend lose over 100 lbs, my moms knees feel better when she has her collagen, and I keep helping more people everyday! Thanks Mark (and Primal Team) for this kick as article (that really got me going) and for everything else you all offer! For anyone out there reading this – Those enzymes are very helpful after any rounds of proton pump inhibitors like Prilosec!!!!