Does Your Protein Powder Contain Digestive Enzymes?

Do you have undigested food in your intestines? Have you ever heard that the average human has 5 pounds of undigested red meat in their digestive tract by the time they are 50!?

This is a commonly repeated statistic, that is internet folklore. It was first spoken into existence by Billy Rosewood, the polite and yet bumbling detective from Beverly Hills Cop and is just as much a fictional statement as was Billy’s marksmanship.

You don’t have undigested food stilling in your bowels for years, months, or even weeks. But that doesn’t mean giving your body a little extra digestive support won’t provide you give you an extra nutritional edge because it might! Let’s look a little deeper…

Digestion: The Forgotten Part of Nutrition

I think of nutrition in 3 phases:

  1. The foods and nutrients you eat.
  2. Your body breaking down and digesting those foods.
  3. Your body using the nutrients and compounds that have been digested.

Generally, people think of one and three but spend little time thinking about the digestion and absorption of the foods that they are eating. If you can’t make the nutrients you are eating accessible, then your body won’t be able to digest them. Things like food allergies/intolerances, inflammation, stress, poor diet, etc. can reduce your ability to digest certain foods.

But what is more interesting to those of us that are always looking for ways to optimize performance is: How can we make the nutrients that we have consumed more accessible to our body so that we can get an even better result?

This is where the strategic use of digestive enzymes with protein powder can come into play.

What are Digestive Enzymes?

Digestive enzymes are compounds that your body uses to breakdown and digest the foods that you eat. For example: when you eat a chicken breast, you chew it. This breaks down the food matrix (mechanical digestion). In your stomach, stomach acids and the enzyme pepsin start to break down the proteins found in the chicken you ate (chemical digestion). As the food enters your small intestine more coupons are released that continue to breakdown the protein you ate until they are in small enough molecular chunks that they can be absorbed by your digestive system (more chemical digestion). 

Your body has all the tools it needs to digest the foods you eat but what if we gave it a little help? What would happen? This is a question that researchers have started to ask. What would happen if we gave people enzymes to help digest proteins when they were eating the protein?

Protein is particularly interesting, especially liquid protein supplements (e.g. protein shakes) because your body is taking in a large amount of protein (20-40g) that is digested at a relatively fast speed (protein shakes are digested quickly because they are liquid and require not mechanical digestion). A 2008 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that taking digestive enzymes with a protein supplement led to greater absorption of the amino acids overtime while also improving nitrogen balance (a measure of if your body is getting ample protein or not).

Plant-based proteins generally have poorer absorption and accessibility to the amino acid in the protein. But a 2015 study found that the addition of a blend of digestive enzymes to a plant-based protein shake led to improvements in amino acid digestion and the speed in which the amino acids were able to enter the bloodstream.

The addition of digestive enzymes to your body improves the speed and amounts of amino acids that enter your bloodstream. They also seem to convey a recovery benefit. A 2004 study found that when people completed rigorous exercise designed to make them sore (downhill running is the classic way to do this in research studies) taking digestive enzymes helped reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This suggests that the digestive enzymes were able to help the bodies of the study participants better assimilate the amino acids from the protein that they were eating which then was used to improve muscle repair - leading to reduced soreness.

The combination of protein powder and digestive enzymes is a unique way to upgrade the benefits that you are already getting from the protein that you are eating. Why choose one without digestive enzymes?