The lowdown on digestive enzymes

The lowdown on digestive enzymes

Understand how to naturally support your dgrstive health,with help from Leyla Moudden, Naturopath and Enzyme Educator for Enzymedica UK and Enzyme Science UK.

Our body needs help to break down foods into their healthy and waste parts. To support this process, our bodies produce molecules called digestive enzymes, which break down the food we chew and swallow into micro molecules. These particles are then small enough to reach the bloodstream and nourish different parts of our body. Digestive enzymes act like chemical scissors, chopping up a whole food like salmon into smaller beneficial parts, such as omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins B and D, and minerals such as phosphorus and niacin.

There are many different types of digestive enzymes. Three of the most well-known enzymes that break down the majority of common food groups include protease, which breaks down proteins, amylase, which breaks down carbohydrates, and starch and lipase, which breaks down fats.

Health functions

There are two major health benefits provided by digestive enzymes. The first is that enzymes, such as proteases, amylases and lipases, release the nutrient content of the food we eat. With the nutrient content released, we are able to gain nourishment and therefore energy from this food. The second is that enzymes protect our gut from intolerance reactions by breaking down troublesome foods into parts so small that they are much less likely to generate gas, bloating, flatulence and bowel problems.

To unlock the health benefits of the foods we eat, we need to effectively digest them to release the nutrients they contain– and the work of breaking food down and releasing these nutrients is done by digestive enzymes. Simply put, if we are not digesting well, we are not gaining the full benefits from our food.

What are the signs to look for if you are lacking in digestive enzymes? Insufficient or a complete lack of a digestive enzyme can lead to impaired digestion. The first sign might be a change in how we feel after eating a meal. For example, foods that we have eaten all of our lives may suddenly generate bloating and wind, or a heavier meal may make us feel very tired after eating. We may not even have made any changes to our diet, then suddenly begin to experience bowel symptoms such as loose or hard stools, or constipation. Other signs may include heartburn, hiccups or burping after eating.

Often, the root of these digestive disturbances is because our natural digestive enzyme production has slowed, and the body is no longer producing the digestive enzymes responsible for breaking down a particular food group or ingredient.

How to top up

Our ability to make digestive enzymes is finite. Digestive enzymes are made by our pancreas and found throughout our digestive tract, from our mouth to our small intestine. As we age, our supply of enzymes begins to naturally decline. This is one reason why so many adults reach for antacids and over the counter digestive aids after they have eaten a meal – they are lacking in natural digestive enzymes.

People who suffer from food intolerances are also highly likely to have a deficiency in their own digestive enzyme supply. The most natural and easiest way to increase our digestive enzyme supply is to take them as a food supplement with each meal.

Supplementing with digestive enzymes is a good daily habit. The foods we tend to typically eat today are so enzyme depleted, it’s almost impossible to maintain a healthy production of digestive enzymes without extra help.

Whilst there are foods that are naturally rich in enzymes, such as papaya, kiwi and pineapple, eating a large enough quantity of these to digest each meal we eat would be extremely challenging.

Most raw foods will have a degree of natural digestive enzymes in them, however, we don’t typically eat raw food for every meal. Heating, blanching and microwaving deactivates any naturally occurring enzymes in foods. The amount of processed foods, ready-meals and takeaway foods that we tend to eat have all been heated to over 43◦C so any natural enzymes that may have been present on the raw ingredients will have been denatured.

Choosing a supplement

Modern food production, cooking and heating is depleting our diets of critical tools such as digestive enzymes. If we can no longer access these naturally via our diet, replenishing the body with digestive enzyme supplements is the only option. Even someone who is very mindful and conscious of what and how they eat will on their life journey find themselves enzyme depleted. This is because most food will have at some stage been heated, boiled, treated or handled in some way that will deactivate any enzymes that may have been in it.

I strongly recommend that everyone should take a digestive enzyme supplement with every meal. The best enzyme formulas are those that provide a mixture of plant-based digestive enzyme variants in their formulas, so that there is enzymatic activity throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract.

Most enzymes are effective or active within a very narrow pH range and since the pH of our gastrointestinal tract varies from very acid to alkaline, most enzyme supplements are not effective throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract. So, while an enzyme supplement may be helpful in one part of the digestive system, it may be totally inactive in another.

If you are aware of a specific food intolerance problem and know that your digestive problem is triggered by fatty foods, or high protein meals, or carbohydrates like bread and potatoes, or dairy products then you can refine your product choice to choose an enzyme blend that addresses those food groups. Digestive enzyme supplementation delivers a benefit for everyone at mealtimes.

Read the ingredients label and avoid any products that contain fillers such as magnesium stearate, apple pectin or rice starch. If you look at the label of a high-quality enzyme product, you will find measurement units you may not be familiar with. For example, the enzyme, protease, is measured in HUTs (Hemoglobin Unit on a L-Tyrosine basis), amylase is measured in DUs (Dextrinizing Units) and lipase is measured in FCCFIPs (Federation Internationale Pharmceutique). With most supplements, it’s easy to compare the products based on the weight of their ingredients. However, with enzymes the only important measure is the activity and potency available. It is important to recognise that there is no direct relationship between weight and enzyme activity.

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