Digestive Enzymes

Suffering from heartburn, reflux, and other digestion challenges? Digestive enzymes can be an important step in finding lasting relief.

Digestive Enzymes

Our bodies are designed to digest food. So why do so many of us suffer from digestive distress?

An estimated one in four Americans suffers from gastrointestinal (GI) and digestive maladies, according to the International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. Upper- and lower- GI symptoms, including heartburn, dyspepsia, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, and diarrhea, represent about 40 percent of the GI conditions for which we seek care.

When flare-ups occur, antacids are the go-to solution for many. Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) — one of the most popular classes of drugs in the United States — and H2 blockers both reduce the production of stomach acid and are commonly prescribed for chronic conditions.

These medications may offer temporary relief, but they often mask the underlying causes of digestive distress and can actually make some problems worse. Frequent heartburn, for example, could signal an ulcer, hernia, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), all of which could be exacerbated rather than helped by long-term antacid use. (For more on problems with these medications, see “The Problem With Acid-Blocking Drugs.”)

Research suggests a link between chronic PPI use and many digestive issues, including PPI-associated pneumonia and hypochlorhydria — a condition characterized by too-low levels of hydrochloric acid (HCl) in gastric secretions. A shortage of HCl can cause bacterial overgrowth, inhibit nutrient absorption, and lead to iron-deficiency anemia.

The bigger issue: As we attempt to suppress the symptoms of our digestive problems, we ignore the underlying causes (typically lifestyle factors like diet, stress, and sleep deficiency). The quick fixes not only fail to solve the problem, they can actually interfere with the building and maintenance of a functional digestive system.

When working optimally, our digestive system employs myriad chemical and biological processes — including the well-timed release of naturally produced digestive enzymes within the GI tract — that help break down our food into nutrients. Digestive distress may be less a sign that there is excess acid in the system, but rather that digestive-enzyme function has been compromised.

For many people with GI dysfunction, supplementing with over-the-counter digestive enzymes, while also seeking to resolve the underlying causes of distress, can provide foundational support for digestion while healing takes place.

“Digestive enzymes can be a big help for some people,” says Gregory Plotnikoff, MD, MTS, FACP, an integrative internal-medicine physician and coauthor of Trust Your Gut. He cautions that supplements are not a “fix” to rely on indefinitely, however. Once your digestive process has been restored, supplements should be used only on an occasional, as-needed basis.

“When we are in a state of reasonable balance, supplemental enzymes are not likely to be needed, as the body will naturally return to producing them on its own,” Plotnikoff says.

Read on to learn how digestive enzymes work and what to do if you suspect a digestive-enzyme problem.

WEB EXTRA!

Click on the image to be taken to the ThingLink website. Then, hover over of the "+" in the graphic to explore the conventional vs. progressive paths to digestive health.

Download the PDF.

is a freelance writer in Minneapolis who often writes about health and fitness.

Illustrations by Andrew Roberts

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