The phrase “you are what you eat” is halfway accurate. The real truth is: You are what you digest. Therefore, are digestive enzymes key to better digestion, gut health and nutrient absorption?
Surprising as it may seem, up until relatively recently, little was known about how your digestive system actually works. Today, there’s a growing incidence of illnesses that, when traced back to the source, appear to be linked to nutrient malabsorption due to a lack of digestive enzymes.
Why are enzymes for digestion important in avoiding illness? The role of digestive enzymes (DE) is primarily to act as catalysts in speeding up specific, life-preserving chemical reactions in the body.
Essentially, they help break down larger molecules into more easily absorbed particles that the body can actually use to survive and thrive.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are defined as “enzymes that are used in the digestive system.”
All enzymes are catalysts that enable molecules to be changed from one form into another. These enzymes help us digest foods by breaking down large macromolecules into smaller molecules that our guts are capable of absorbing, thus supporting gut health and making sure the nutrients are delivered to the body.
What are the main digestive enzymes? They are split into three main classes:
- proteolytic enzymes that are needed to metabolize proteins
- lipases needed to digest fats
- amylases needed to break down carbohydrates
There are various types of DE found in humans, some of which include:
- Amylase — Found in saliva and pancreatic juice, works to turn large starch molecules into maltose. Needed to metabolize carbohydrates, starches and sugars, which are prevalent in basically all plant foods (potatoes, fruits, vegetables, grains, etc.).
- Pepsin — Which enzyme breaks down protein? Found in the gastric juice within your stomach, pepsin helps turn protein into smaller units called polypeptides.
- Lipase — Made by your pancreas and secreted into your small intestine. After mixing with bile, this turns fats and triglycerides into fatty acids. Needed to properly absorb foods like dairy products, nuts, oils, eggs and meat.
- Trypsin and chymotrypsin — These endopeptidases further break down polypeptides into even smaller pieces.
- Cellulase — Helps with digestion of high-fiber foods like broccoli, asparagus and beans, which can cause excessive gas.
- Exopeptidases, carboxypeptidase and aminopeptidase — Help release individual amino acids.
- Lactase — Turns sugar lactose into glucose and galactose.
- Sucrase — Cleaves the sugar sucrose into glucose and fructose.
- Maltase — Reduces the sugar maltose into smaller glucose molecules.
- Other enzymes that help with absorption of sugar/carbs include invertase, glucoamylase and alpha-galactosidase.
How Do Digestive Enzymes Work?
Digestion is a complex process that first begins when you chew food, which releases enzymes in your saliva. Most of the work happens thanks to gastrointestinal fluids that contain DEs, which act on certain nutrients (fats, carbs or proteins).
We make specific DEs to help with absorption of different types of foods. In other words, we produce carbohydrate-specific, protein-specific and fat-specific enzymes.
DEs aren’t just beneficial — they’re essential. They turn complex foods into absorbable compounds, including amino acids, fatty acids, cholesterol, simple sugars and nucleic acids (which help make DNA).
They are synthesized and secreted in different parts of your digestive tract, including your mouth, stomach and pancreas.
Below is an overview of the six-step digestive process, starting with chewing, that triggers DE secretion in your digestive tract:
- Salivary amylase released in the mouth is the first DE to assist in digestion of molecules, and that process continues after food enters the stomach.
- The parietal cells of the stomach are then triggered into releasing acids, pepsin and other enzymes, including gastric amylase, and the process of degrading the partially digested food into chyme (a semifluid mass of partly digested food) begins.
- Stomach acid also has the effect of neutralizing the salivary amylase, allowing gastric amylase to take over.
- After an hour or so, the chyme is propelled into the duodenum, where acidity triggers the release of the hormone secretin.
- That, in turn, notifies the pancreas to release hormones, bicarbonate, bile and numerous pancreatic enzymes, of which the most relevant are lipase, trypsin, amylase and nuclease.
- The bicarbonate changes the acidity of the chyme from acid to alkaline, which has the effect of not only allowing the enzymes to degrade food, but also killing bacteria that are not capable of surviving in the acid environment.
At this point, for people without DE insufficiency (lack of digestive enzymes), most of the work is done. For others, supplementation is needed and helps this process along.
This can even be true for pets, since there are several benefits of digestive enzymes for dogs, digestive enzymes for cats and for other animals too.
Who Needs Them? (Signs of Deficiency)
The answer to the increasingly asked question — “Who should take digestive enzymes?” — may ultimately turn out to be many more people than you might expect.
People who experience symptoms like bloating, gas, abdominal pain and fatigue due to undigested foods may benefit from a DE supplement. Other signs that you might lack DEs include:
- Acid reflux
- Dyspepsia (pain or an uncomfortable feeling in the upper middle part of your stomach area)
- Cravings for certain foods
- Thyroid problems
- Heartburn, indigestion or burping
- Hair that is thinning or falling out
- Dry or lackluster skin
- Trouble concentrating or brain fog
- Morning fatigue
- Trouble sleeping well
- Arthritis or joint pain
- Muscle weakness or feeling too tired to exercise
- Mood swings, depression or irritability
- Headaches or migraines
- Worsened PMS
People with the following health conditions can likely experience some relief from taking a DE supplement:
1. Digestive Diseases
If you have any type of digestive disease — such as acid reflux, gas, bloating, leaky gut, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, malabsorption, diarrhea or constipation — then DEs may be able to help.
They can help take stress off of the digestive organs and decrease symptoms like abdominal pain and bloating that are associated with gastrointestinal disease.
2. Age-Related Enzyme Insufficiency
As we age, the acidity of our stomach acid becomes more alkaline, and this can prevent enough pancreatic secretions from being released.
Concurrent illnesses aside, as we age there’s increasing suspicion that digestive problems may result from either low stomach acid or DE insufficiency, which are thought to be common causes of acid reflux.
Hypochlorhydria (having too little stomach acid) makes it hard for minerals, vitamins and nutrients to be “cleaved” or released from food while in the GI tract, and if this action fails, then nutritional insufficiency is usually the result.
4. Liver Disease and Other Enzyme-Related Illnesses
Anyone with liver disease should be suspected as having a concurrent enzyme insufficiency. One of the more common conditions is known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder that affects roughly one in 1,500 people worldwide.
Symptoms that may be experienced include unintentional weight loss, recurring respiratory infections, fatigue and rapid heartbeats.
There illnesses (that may at first diagnosis appear unrelated to low DE production) include:
- Crohn’s disease
- Iron deficiency or vitamin B12 deficiency
- Vitamin D deficiency
Other symptomatic indicators of enzymatic insufficiency are:
- Stool changes — If the stool is pale and floats in the toilet bowl or if it’s greasy or fatty.
- Gastrointestinal complaints — Stomach distention and diarrhea, especially around an hour after eating. Flatulence and indigestion are also indicative.
5. Pancreatic Insufficiency
Pancreatic insufficiency is the inability of the pancreas to secrete the enzymes needed for digestion. This is a common problem among people with pancreatic cancer.
Prescription pancreatic enzyme products (also called called replacement therapy) may be used in patients with pancreatic cancer, chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis and after surgery on the gut to help promote healing.
Best Natural Sources (Foods)
Many raw plants, such as raw fruits and vegetables, contain enzymes that aid in their digestion.
Raw fruits and vegetables grown in nutrient-rich soils are the best natural sources of DEs, so make sure to buy more of these when you shop for groceries:
- Kefir and yogurt
- Miso, soy sauce and tempeh (fermented soy products)
- Sauerkraut and kimchi
- Bee pollen
- Apple cider vinegar
- Raw honey
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