What Are Digestive Enzymes and How Do They Work?

February 05, 2021 5 min read

What Are Digestive Enzymes and How Do They Work?

What Are Digestive Enzymes and How Do They Work?

Do you suffer from chronic digestive issues such as gas, bloating, indigestion, or constipation? Do you experience reflux after a meal? Or do you see pieces of undigested food or fatty substances in your stool? If so, your body may not be producing enough digestive enzymes, or your enzymes may not be working as well as they should. This is a very common issue many people have, yet they may not realize just how important they are and how they can help improve digestion. 

So what are digestive enzymes, and what causes enzyme deficiency? Most importantly, how can you maintain healthy levels of digestive enzymes and support your body with digestive enzymes?

Your body naturally produces enzymes in the digestive tract, including the mouth, stomach, small intestine and the key player is the pancreas, as that is where the majority of digestive enzymes are made

However, as we age and when we are stressed or dealing with illness, digestive enzyme production slows down because your body never gets back into the relaxed, rest and digest mode necessary for digestion.

Digestive enzymes play a key role in breaking down and absorbing proteins, carbs and fats. These proteins speed up chemical reactions that turn nutrients into substances that are necessary for the absorption of those nutrients and optimal health. Once nutrients are broken down, they are absorbed into your body through the wall of the small intestine and distributed through the bloodstream. Without these enzymes, the nutrients in your food can essentially go to waste. 

The digestion process begins in your mouth, where saliva starts breaking down your food. From there, your food travels to your stomach, where stomach acid, primarily hydrochloric acid (HCL), begins breaking down proteins. When you eat, the pancreas receives a hormonal signal to release pancreatic juice into the small intestineOther organs, including your gallbladder and liver, also release them and the cells on the surface of your intestines store them, too. (source)

Different types of enzymes target different nutrients:

  • Amylase breaks down carbs and starches into sugar molecules. Insufficient amylase can lead to diarrhea.
  • Protease breaks down proteins into amino acids. It also helps keep bacteria, yeast, and protozoa out of the intestines. A shortage of protease can lead to allergies or toxicity in the intestines.
  • Lipase is responsible for breaking down fats in partnership with liver bile. Lipase also supports the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins which we have talked about before in our blog, Why Vitamins Are Important To Your Health. 
  • There are also a number of enzymes located in the brush border of the small intestine which break down disaccharides into simple sugars.

Now that we understand what digestive enzymes are, the question is how do you know if you may be deficient and should consider taking a digestive enzyme supplement? 

There are two schools of thought here as conventional medicine recognizes few causes of digestive enzyme deficiency, however they are only the extreme cases. While functional medicine recognizes many other underlying health issues that can also contribute to enzyme deficiency. 

Extreme cases include acute or chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, cancer of the pancreas, gallbladder removal, and diseases of the small intestine affecting the brush border, such as Crohn’s or Celiac disease. (source)

However, if you are experiencing any of the following digestive symptoms you may benefit from a digestive enzyme supplement as your body may not be fully able to breakdown and absorb the foods you are eating, thus leaving you malnourished.

  • Bloating/excessive gas
  • Cramping after meals
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Yellow, greasy stools that float
  • Foul-smelling stools
  • Weight loss even if you’re eating well
  • Cravings can also be an indicator, as chronic cravings are typically associated with chronic malnourishment 

What other issues can cause a deficiency?

Leaky gut is the most common culprit, because it destroys the brush border of your small intestines. Inflammation from food sensitivities and toxins also decreases enzyme production, as well as chronic stress, genetics, and aging.  Not to mention, low stomach acid can also play a role because an acidic environment is necessary to activate enzymes responsible for protein digestion. (source)

Other digestive disorders such as lactose intolerance can also be a tell tale sign of an enzyme deficiency. Lactose intolerance is a shortage of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the natural sugar in milk called lactose. Without the proper amount of lactase, lactose in dairy products that you eat travels straight to your colon instead of getting absorbed into your body. It then combines with bacteria and causes uncomfortable stomach symptoms. (source)

So, how can you support your body with digestive enzymes naturally? We always focus on food first and natural sources!

Fruits, vegetables, and other foods have natural digestive enzymes. Eating them can improve your digestion.

  • Honey, especially the raw kind, has amylase and protease.
  • Mangoes and bananas have amylase, which also helps the fruit to ripen.
  • Papaya has a type of protease called papain.
  • Avocados have the digestive enzyme lipase.
  • Sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage, picks up digestive enzymes during the fermentation process.
  • Pineapple has a type of protease called bromelain.
  • Kiwifruit has a protease called actinidain, supporting the digestion of protein and is commercially used to tenderize tough meats.
  • Ginger has a type of protease called zingibain, which digests proteins into their amino acid building blocks.

All of these foods can be beneficial for getting in more digestive enzymes to help improve digestion and gut health. However, depending on your body's ability to produce digestive enzymes, and the diversity of your diet ...you still may not have a healthy amount of digestive enzymes for proper digestion.

This is where using a high-quality digestive enzyme supplement can help give your body what it needs for proper digestion, improved gut health, and improved overall health. We have included an enzyme blend into our GREENS that includes protease, cellulase, alpha-amylase, hemicellulase, pectinase and lipase. 

We already covered the protease, amylase and lipase, in regards to protein, carbs and fats, but we have also included three other enzymes to support the breakdown of other foods. Cellulase is anenzyme that breaks down cellulose, which is the main constituent of plant cell walls and vegetable fibers. Hemicellulase supports the breakdown of simple sugars and pectinase catalyzes the breakdown of pectin, a component of the cell wall in fruits such as apples and oranges.

So, if you are struggling with digestive issues such as gas, bloating, indigestion, reflux, diarrhea, constipation, or undigested food in your stool, you may benefit from a bit of additional support, as well as including more of the foods that contain enzymes naturally. 

Additionally, if you’re transitioning off a diet of highly processed food, we would also recommend incorporating a digestive enzyme as your body may need some support breaking down the vegetable fibers and sugars in fruit to get the most benefit from the foods you consume.

Since digestive enzymes are meant to mimic your natural enzymes, it is best to take them just before you eat. That way, they can do their work as food hits your stomach and small intestine. 

Lastly, if you’re struggling with severe GI symptoms, it may be best to talk with your doctor to determine potential causes and address the root cause issues such as leaky gut, food intolerances, celiac disease, lactose intolerance, pancreas function, or other health concerns that may be contributing to symptoms. 

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