As a nutritionist who specializes in gut health, strategic supplementation of nutrients and herbs for gut healing is often part of my work with clients.
Two digestive health supplements that I often get asked about are digestive enzymes, and digestive bitters. Both have their own benefits, and their own time and place for best use!
In this article, we’re going to be covering what each of them is, and how they differ from each other.
Digestive bitters are a supplement that is generally found in the form of a tincture. Tinctures are where constituents from various plants are extracted, either using alcohol or in some cases, glycerine. This process allows the powerful healing components from these plants to be used to support us.
As you can imagine, the specific herbs that are used to create digestive bitters are, well, bitter! Herbs like dandelion, gentian, chamomile, turmeric, burdock, ginger, globe artichoke, etc., are all herbs that can often be found in a bitters blend.
Digestive bitters are a great place to start if you’re looking to support your gut health, and can be used on a daily basis, long term, for people who struggle with digestive complaints.
Here are a few ways digestive bitters can help your gut:
They can support liver and gallbladder health. Bitter herbs, like the ones used in these tinctures, can help to stimulate bile flow from the gallbladder. Bile is a substance that’s produced in the liver, and stored and concentrated in the gallbladder. It’s important for breaking down and emulsifying fats, and excreting toxins, excess cholesterol, and other waste products from the body. Bitter herbs can also help stimulate the liver, and it’s detoxification processes.
They can increase gastric secretions like stomach acid, digestive enzymes, and bile. These secretions are needed for the breakdown of our food, among other functions, like neutralizing pathogens, aiding the removal of waste products and cholesterol, and more.
Unlike digestive bitters, digestive enzymes contain enzymes (which are proteins that help to break down nutrients from our food), and are derived from both plant and animal sources.
They’re best used short-term (with some exceptions), and essentially replace the enzymes that our body would naturally produce.
Here are some examples of enzymes that our body makes for us:
Amylase: these enzymes break down carbohydrates that we consume. Salivary amylase is found in our saliva (which starts the breakdown process of carbs right in our mouth), and pancreatic amylase is secreted from our pancreas, which continues the breakdown of carbohydrates in the small intestine.
Lipase: this enzyme breaks down fats (or lipids). Pancreatic lipase is secreted by our pancreas to help break down fats in the small intestine.
Protease: these enzymes help to break down proteins that we eat. Pepsin is a protease that becomes active in our stomach due to stomach acid converting the inactive compound pepsinogen, into pepsin. This helps to start the breakdown process of protein in the stomach. Pancreatic peptidases are secreted by the pancreas, and help further break proteins down in the small intestine.
Digestive enzyme supplements will generally contain some sort of combination of the abovementioned enzymes. You might even find bromelain (which is derived from pineapples), and papain (derived from papaya), which are proteolytic enzymes that help to break down protein.
Digestive enzymes can target specific imbalances, and are best used if they’re actually needed. One way we can know if they’re needed, is through the GI MAP, which is the comprehensive stool test that I run in clinic for my clients.
This test measures Elastase-1, which is reflective of pancreatic enzyme function and even stomach acid levels. When this marker comes back too low, that’s when we can bring in stomach acid support, and in some cases, digestive enzymes to help support the body in digesting food, while we work on deeper gut healing.
If you’d like to learn more about these digestive supports, as well as brand recommendations, you can check out my FREE Beginners Guide to Gut Healing.