Digestive Enzymes and Weight Loss: What’s the Connection?

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Though it’s not often talked about in popular media, there is a link between digestive enzymes and weight loss. In fact, the connection between digestive enzymes and body composition is significant, representing one of the most overlooked factors when trying to forge a healthy weight management plan – both for people who are overweight or obese, as well as underweight.

If you struggle with persistent weight issues that just won’t relent, you might have a lingering enzyme deficiency that’s inhibiting your body’s ability to digest food properly and dispose of waste – leading to fat accumulation, muscle deterioration, or worse.

Too Few Digestive Enzymes = Incomplete Digestion

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 22 million Americans suffer from gastrointestinal problems that stem from incomplete digestion [1]. And as it turns out, incomplete digestion is often a factor of not having enough digestive enzymes.

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If you suffer from gas, bloating, or one of the other usual suspects of indigestion, chances are you’re not getting enough enzymes from your food. And since enzymes are where digestion starts, this is the first thing you want to address if you’re having digestive troubles. If left unchecked, a lack of enzymes can slow down your metabolism over time and throw your body into biological disarray.

How Different Body Types Are Impacted by Enzyme Deficiency

For naturally thinner people (e.g., the ectomorph body type), they might start to notice that no matter how much they try to eat, they can’t seem to gain any weight. For more rounded body types (e.g., endomorphs), they might continue to pack on the pounds no matter how many different diets they attempt.

The circumstances will be different for each individual. Still, the principle remains the same: if the foods you eat aren’t being fully broken down into molecular-sized components that your body can use, then your weight is sure to suffer in one negative direction or the other. Not only that, even worse health problems are likely to follow if the issue isn’t addressed.

Prolonged Incomplete Digestion Is a Recipe for Metabolic Disaster

It only makes sense that if your body isn’t getting the nutrition it needs due to poor digestion, then it’s not going to function on all cylinders. And your metabolism is often the first thing to suffer, driving a wedge between your efforts to either bulk up or slim down and see results [2].

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On the one hand, malnutrition resulting from a digestion-inhibiting enzyme deficiency probably means that your body isn’t assimilating enough calories, which for some people could cause unwanted weight loss.

At the same time, metabolism can slow down to the point that food remains in an undigested state and starts to compact itself in the gut, cascading into unwanted weight gain.

When food particles linger in the colon for too long undigested, they tend to attract increasing levels of bacteria (both good and bad) that try to get it moving. This can lead to a condition known as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, which is similarly associated with weight gain.

This mass influx of bacteria tends to create excessive levels of methane gas that inhibit the small intestine from effectively doing its job. Intestinal villi, or the small, finger-like projections that line the surface of the intestinal wall, start to binge like they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and all these calories begin to pile on as unwanted fat.

Leptin Tells Your Brain When It’s Time to Stop Eating

In scenarios like this where digestive enzymes aren’t readily available to act as digestive gatekeepers, your body’s probiotic stores will attempt to fill the void. But this can cause your insulin levels to spike, followed by a degradation in the functionality of leptin, a hormone produced by your body’s fat cells that essentially tells your brain when it’s time to stop eating [3].

Leptin oversees how your body converts food into either energy, muscle, or fat, in just the right amounts. However, should your body develop a resistance to leptin due to a lack of digestive enzymes, not only will your food not digest properly but what it digests into will also go awry.

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While insulin plays a vital role in managing blood sugar levels as part of this process, the more insulin you have circulating in your bloodstream, the less leptin will be able to do its job. This can lead to the formation of hyperinsulinemia, which can spike blood sugar levels so high that your body stops converting food to energy, and instead stores it as fat.

Dr. James Johnson, PhD, is an associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. According to Dr. Johnson, too much insulin, and thus not enough functional leptin, can reprogram the body “to really hold onto its nutrients and not burn any of them” – which is bad news from a weight management perspective [4].

Sugar, it turns out, is one of the primary drivers of the obesity epidemic, and this is part of the reason why. Rather than converting the carbohydrates you consume into energy, your body packs them on as fat, which further drives insulin and leptin resistance, creating an endless and vicious cycle of unwanted weight gain.

All of this can be traced right back to poor digestion, which is triggered by an enzyme deficiency in many cases. In these instances, fixing the problem can be as simple as intaking more digestive enzymes, which have the potential to stoke the fat-burning fire and get the body back on track.

Too Thin? Digestive Enzymes Can Help Here, Too

And don’t feel left out if you’re too thin and trying to gain weight, as the process is much the same – though with obviously different results.

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By supporting optimized nutrient absorption and healthy metabolism, digestive enzymes have a positive effect on both insulin levels and leptin functionality. This can boost energy levels and improve the ability of your body to convert protein into muscle mass [5].

The Link Between Chronic Inflammation and Weight Gain

Another major problem with undigested food particles lingering in your gut is that they eventually start to inflame your body. Since chronic inflammation is also linked to weight gain, this is obviously something you want to avoid to achieve your healthy weight management goals.

While acute inflammation is a beneficial mechanism through which your body addresses underlying health issues, too much of it for too long can throw your immune system completely off-kilter. This is another key marker in obesity, in that systemic, low-grade inflammation – “metainflammation” – is directly associated with unwanted weight gain [6].

Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a common inflammatory GI condition that can arise from this, for which many people take probiotics as a natural solution. But digestive enzymes are where it all starts, as probiotics are designed to engage the second phase of the digestive process after enzymes have already worked their magic.

GI-Related Conditions That Interfere With Weight

Other GI-related conditions that can interfere with healthy weight maintenance include:

Gastroparesis, which slows or stops the movement of food from the stomach to the small intestine. While gastroparesis can make you feel like you’re gaining weight due to bloat and feelings of over-fullness, in the long run this disease can lead to severe weight loss – and not the good kind.

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Ulcerative colitis, which leaves the digestive tract in a perpetually inflamed state. Initially, this disease can seem like it’s causing weight loss. But its treatments, which often include taking steroids like prednisone, can cause your body to gain weight in all the wrong places, including in your abdomen, neck, and face.

Keep in mind that chronic inflammation is a leading cause of chronic illness in general. And the highly processed standard American diet, which is severely lacking in digestive enzymes, only makes things worse, in large part because it’s loaded with processed sugars and other hidden food allergens [7].

Do Enzymes Burn Fat Directly?

Now that we’ve identified some of the ways in which digestive enzymes and weight loss (or intentional weight gain) go hand-in-hand, including by supporting healthy inflammation levels [8], part of the solution can be as simple as taking more enzymes – especially those that directly contribute to the burning of fat.

In addition to supporting proper nourishment and optimized body composition, fat-burning enzymes like lipase, which breaks down fats, possess the unique ability to turn on and off the various fat-burning “switches” inside your body.

Lipase specifically has an inversely proportional relationship with insulin. This means the higher your levels of lipase, the lower your levels of insulin, too much of which can cause weight gain. This suggests that lipase may help to ward off insulin resistance and the metabolic havoc it can cause if not properly mitigated.

Increasing your lipase stores, in conjunction with other fat-burning digestive enzymes, as well as both probiotics and prebiotics, can thus help to support balanced insulin levels, which in turn may help to improve lipid profiles and glucose metabolism [9].

Lipase and digestive enzymes in general function as regulatory mechanisms in optimizing your body’s ability to not only extract and absorb nutrients from food, but also deliver these nutrients where you actually want them to go – rather than around your midsection.

Conversely, if you have trouble keeping on weight, digestive enzymes like lipase can help your brain to get the message that it’s time to start utilizing more of what you eat in the production of muscle. By fine-tuning your metabolism in this way, digestive enzymes really do have the potential to help you achieve your weight management goals.


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