Enzymes on the whole are proteins that are made by living organisms to catalyse chemical reactions. Digestive Enzymes are made in the body by the Pancreas, Salivary Glands, Stomach and the Small Intestine. Together along the bacteria in our gut they help to digest food into tiny molecules that can pass through our intestinal wall and into our blood to nourish our body. There are many different types of digestive enzymes and some of the simple most commonly supplemented ones include;
- Proteases – Break down proteins
- Amylases – Break down starches and sugars
- Lipases – Break down Fats
- Lactase – Break down Lactose Sugars (in Milk)
- Cellulase – Break down Cellulose which is the fibre in in plants
- Peptidase – Break down certain Proteins such as Casein (in milk) or Gluten
- Alpha – Galactosidase – Break down Carbohydrates found in Legumes
The main signs our bodies don’t produce enough of the right enzymes include digestive problems such as bloating, gas, malabsorption or difficulty transitioning to a new diet. Lets think about how important good effective digestion is. You can eat the most nutritionally balanced diet available that is super low inflammatory but if you don’t digest it properly you are never going to absorb the nutrients and those larger food molecules are going to create inflammation in the system. For this reason Digestive enzymes are gaining popularity as a health supplement and people who use them often report better Digestive Health, Fat Loss, Muscle Gain, Improved Skin and Improved Brain Function. The reason for this is if our bodies don’t digest our food properly then many potential problems can be created for our bodies.
What problems can a lack of digestive enzymes cause?
The food can sit longer in our intestines and stomach causing heaviness and fullness of the abdomen. This can also lead to imbalances in our gut biome as the food that is not digested properly can lead to bacterial overgrowth within those colonies that associated with a particular type of undigested food. In addition to this partially digested foods including Lectins (an essential binding molecule for proteins to carbohydrates) can cause inflammation within our digestive organs and symptoms of leaky gut. Inflammation also acts as an enzyme inhibitor so poor digestion leading to inflammation in the digestive organs can further inhibit the production of digestive enzymes within those organs leading to cycle of poor digestive health.
The problems of partially digested foods doesn’t end in the gut though. Once the larger food molecules leave the gut and enter the blood stream they can cause many signs of food intolerances and sensitivities such as systemic inflammation, lethargy, and autoimmune conditions. Relevant to the topic of skin and beauty some of these inflammatory conditions display themselves in our skin as Acne, Psoriasis, Eczema etc.
What can cause an imbalance in our digestive enzymes?
Stress and inflammation are the single biggest factor that leads to poor digestive enzyme production. The hormone cortisol that is released in to great a quantity during times of stress creates inflammation within our bodies and the stomach and intestines are often greatly effected by stressful situations. This is why people often feel stressed or knotted up in their stomach when under stress as blood flow is shunted away from the digestive organs as stress triggers the fight or flight response within the body and digestion takes a back seat for a short period of time. Here lies the key. The human body is designed to deal with short bouts of stress but its when the stress is sustained as it is in our society today that the problems are caused. The blood flow remains reduced to our digestive organs, the digestion process is never really completed and the myriad of health problems start. The key to recognise here is that the stress is the problem and not the digestive enzymes. We can supplement the digestive enzymes until the cows come home but if we don’t remove the stress factors our bodies wont produce them naturally. Therefore in this situation the key in all of this is finding the stress causing factor and not to just rely on supplementing digestive enzymes.
Certain foods also contain digestive enzyme inhibitors such as nuts, grains, beans and legumes. These foods can still be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet though but you should make sure you prepare them properly by either soaking, sprouting, fermenting or where appropriate cooking them prior to eating them. The key is with many of these foods you don’t want to have to over cook them to kill off the enzyme inhibitors as this often kills off the good enzymes and nutrients along with the less desirable ones. Thats why adequately soaking, sprouting and fermenting is the best option for most.
Toxins such as heavy metals and chemicals can also act as enzyme inhibitors so its another important reason to buy organic foods and carefully source good quality ingredients with a lower risk of contamination.
Chewing gum can also cause problems with our digestive enzymes. Chemical and toxins aside the motion of chewing tricks our bodies into thinking we are eating and our bodies can release too much digestive enzymes when we don’t need them leaving us short in supply when we do need them.
Should I be taking digestive enzymes?
Here comes the tricky answer. There is absolutely a time and a place for digestive enzymes. What they should not be is a reliant source to help you digest food. You should always try and find the cause. If you have digestive issues trying the use of digestive enzymes is certainly not a bad thing to try to kick start your digestion again. Since food normally passes through the digestive tract in about 24 hours you would expect to see an improvement in symptoms within 3-4 days if it is purely a problem with your digestive issues. If symptoms persist there is a likely other causes at fault here and having this properly checked out should be a priority.
Where digestive enzymes can be really effective is aiding with food sensitivities and very mild intolerances. I am absolutely not advocating eating these foods liberally and just taking digestive enzymes for you to indulge in these foods regularly. What you can do though is very occasionally use them to help in social situations where you want to have the birthday cake when everyone else is eating it at your best friends birthday. It will help your body digest that gluten occasionally at these special times. Another social setting that enzymes can help is when you go out for a meal and your not quite sure what might be contained within some of the delicious food you are about to devour, and you don’t want to ask the waiter a thousand questions about everything that goes in to your food. Before you know it you’ve substituted your entire meal. Another place where it can help is if you consume a food your sensitive too unwittingly. Even after the fact when you start to notice your symptoms the digestive enzymes can help to reduce them.
Another place they can be of use is when starting a health kick to help kick start your digestion. Sometimes from unhealthy lifestyles full of stress and poor quality food that inflames our gut we might need a little bit of support from enzymes to help kick start our digestive systems. This way we can quickly heal our digestive organs and start absorbing all this great nutrients we start to put inside our bodies.
To summarise if you have known food sensitivities its a good idea to keep a digestive enzyme relative to that food handy. i.e a lipase if you struggle to dissolve fats, a lactase enzyme if you struggle to digest lactose etc etc. Then if your in a situation where you inadvertently consume these foods or social pressures or personal desires lead you to rare binge on that food your covered. You ideally take the enzyme just prior to eating to help digest it the moment it hits your stomach. If you cant do this before then take them as soon as you can in the aftermath.
So whats the alternative?
Nothing ever substitutes good quality healthy food. Lots of fruit and vegetables actually come equipped with enzymes all set and ready. They key is to not kill these enzymes through processing, preparation and over cooking. A common example is through milk. The pasteurisation or homogenisation process kill of all the enzymes and many adults don’t create the enzymes required to break down the lactose or the casein in milk leading to may intolerances. Many people that cant tolerate pasteurised milk fair much better with Raw Milks or kefir. This leads us in to fermented foods. Fermented foods are great for getting good enzymes in too as the food is already starting to be digested by the fermentation process so as well as getting a bunch of good bacteria it also helps to restore your own enzymes. Quite often people who are sensitive to certain foods can eat that type of food once fermented and another example of this on top of milk and kefir is also many people who are wheat and/or gluten sensitive can eat sourdough bread as the gluten and wheat has already started to be digested.
On top of this knowledge we can also eat foods that naturally good occurring enzymes in conjunction with our meals. Often foods that ripen over time have enzymes that cause the ripening process to happen and these enzymes also make the food more digestible. Below is a list of foods that are very good for helping us to digest differing nutrients.
There are many foods that help with digestion of proteins and it is certainly worth considering eating these foods with or around a protein heavy meal. Pineapple (Bromelain), Papaya (Papain), Raw Manuka Honey, Kefir, Sauerkraut, Miso, Kiwi (Actinidain), Ginger (Zingibain), Asparagus, and Natural Yoghurt all contain natural Proteases that will make digesting all types of protein easier on the digestive system.