How do enzymes help with digestion?
Enzymes are protein molecules that we simply can't live without, as we need them to function. They are essential for digestive, cellular, muscle, organ, nerve, brain, tissue and circulatory health.
There are many different types of enzymes, both metabolic and digestive, which we make ourselves. We also derive some enzymes from food.
Digestive enzymes are vital for a healthy balanced gut, nutrient absorption and smooth running digestion. The knock-on effect? An overall healthier you, functioning at your best.
Enzymes and digestion
Digestive enzymes are catalysts that speed up digestive chemical reactions in your body, which would otherwise take too long.
They are secreted throughout the digestive system, breaking down large food molecules in proteins, fats and carbohydrates, enabling nutrients to be better absorbed and used for fuel.
Different digestive enzymes have specific jobs and are strategically located in particular parts of the digestive tract for maximum effectiveness.
They work together with bile and other digestive juices released in anticipation of eating and during digestion.
The action of enzymes in the digestive system work as follows:
- When you start chewing, your salivary glands produce enzymes that begin to break down starches in your food.
- Digestive enzymes in your stomach work on proteins.
- During digestion, pancreatic enzymes empty into your duodenum (the small upper part of your digestive system) to break down fats, carbohydrates (starches) and proteins.
- Once food fragments reach your small intestine, they are processed further by digestive enzymes embedded in the intestinal wall and broken down into nutrients easily absorbed into your bloodstream.
3 enzymes involved in digestion
Three of the most well known digestive enzymes are:
- Lipase – breaks down fats
- Amylase – breaks down starches
- Protease – breaks down proteins
There are many other essential digestive enzymes, including cellulase, which helps break down high-fibre plant foods.
Deficiencies in digestive enzymes can lead to a host of health issues. These can range from digestive conditions including bloating, cramping, wind and diarrhoea to nutrient deficiencies, inflammation and chronic illness.
Depending on the issue, it’s possible to address this through food, eliminating ones that aggravate symptoms and increasing foods that naturally contain digestive enzymes. You can also take enzymes in supplement form.
Of course, to be safe, always check with your doctor or chosen health professional before taking digestive enzymes, especially if you have a severe illness, are taking medication or any other supplements.
Causes and signs of digestive enzyme deficiency
There can be several causes, including:
- Poor diet
- Low stomach acid
- Digestive conditions and food intolerances
- Illness and chronic disease including liver disease, exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, other pancreatic conditions and diabetes.
Signs you’re low in digestive enzymes can include:
- Digestive disorders including acid reflux, heartburn, indigestion, bloating, wind, abdominal pain, cramping and diarrhoea
- Poor sleep
- Thinning hair
- Dry, dull skin
- Brain fog
- Joint and muscle aches and pains
- Mood swings, anxiety, irritability and depression
- Hormone imbalance, including PMS and thyroid issues.
Who would benefit from taking digestive enzymes?
- Anyone suffering from enzyme-related illness including pancreatic insufficiency, liver disease, Crohn’s disease, and nutrient deficiencies including iron, B12, vitamin D or vitamin A.
- As we age, our stomach acid becomes more alkaline. So if you are ageing, particularly if you’re suffering from digestive symptoms or other deficiency signs, digestive enzymes could help.
- If you suffer from hypochlorhydria (low stomach acid).
- If you have a digestive disorder including IBD, IBS, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, bloating, wind, pain, diarrhoea or constipation.
- If you’re taking medication.
What improvements may you notice by taking digestive enzymes?
If you suffer from a gastrointestinal disorder, you may notice an improvement in your symptoms as the digestive enzymes improve your digestive process.
Some research shows that digestive enzyme supplements can reduce diarrhoea, cramping and bloating in IBS patients and they may also improve bloating, wind and abdominal pain.
If you suffer from a leaky gut, you may benefit from taking digestive enzymes as they help to break down more robust, harder to digest food molecules, taking pressure off your digestive system, helping to support and repair your gastrointestinal tract.
They may also help with lactose intolerance.
If you have intestinal parasites, supplementing with digestive enzymes as part of a thorough treatment plan can help to strengthen your GI tract and make it an unwelcoming environment for them.
In some instances, for example, if you suffer from cystic fibrosis or pancreatic dysfunction, your doctor may prescribe prescription-strength enzymes.
If you wish to supplement, it’s essential to know how to choose the best digestive enzymes. For example, it’s best to ensure that the supplement you choose covers all major enzyme groups (amylase, protease and lipase).
If you are sensitive to dairy, find one containing lactase. Also, if you’re vegan or vegetarian, you need to check the ingredients, as many supplements include animal enzymes like pancreatin and pepsin.
What foods contain digestive enzymes?
Adding any foods containing digestive enzymes to your diet can improve digestion and gut health.
Foods that naturally contain them include avocados, papayas, pineapples, bananas, mangos, sprouts, kiwis, kefir, yoghurt, fermented soy products, raw fermented sauerkraut and kimchi, ginger, bee pollen and raw honey.
vPut one tablespoon in a small amount of water and drink it on an empty stomach half an hour before eating.
Digestion simply can’t happen without digestive enzymes. They are catalysts that radically speed up chemical reactions, helping to break down large food molecules from fats, carbohydrates and proteins, making them easier to digest and nutrients easier to absorb.
If you have or develop a deficiency of digestive enzymes, it can cause food intolerances and digestive dysfunction. Your overall health may also suffer as a result.
In many cases, taking digestive enzymes or obtaining them from food can improve digestion and gut health and ease symptoms.
It’s always best to check with your doctor or chosen health professional before taking digestive enzymes, especially if you have a serious illness, are taking medication or any other supplements.
Written by Rebecca Rychlik, Nutritional Therapist and Homeopath. Follow Rebecca on Instagram, Facebook and Medium, @rebeccabitesback.
If you’re concerned your stomach acid is low, try taking some raw apple cider vinegar before each meal.