The digestive process is an extremely complex system that we often take for granted. While it’s great when everything is working smoothly, we certainly take notice when our system is not processing properly! Digestion is made up of a diverse group of enzymes that are largely responsible for taking the whole foods we consume and breaking them down into products that can be used by our cells for energy to fuel our bodies and keep us healthy.
Digestive enzymes: energy to fuel our bodies and keep us healthy.
Digestive enzymes are produced in the salivary glands of the mouth, stomach mucosa, pancreas, and by the intestinal brush border. For digestion to occur optimally, enzymes in each of these locations need to be produced in sufficient quantities to match the types of foods that make up our current diet. When enzyme production meets the needs of our dietary input, we can extract the greatest portion of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and other food components that are beneficial for health.
Gut bacteria have their own enzymatic process.
However, certain food particles, such as fibers, can’t be degraded by endogenous enzymes at all, and instead are left for our gut bacteria to break down. These bacteria have their own enzymatic processes that break down fibers and fermentable food components not only to sustain their own bacterial population, but to provide our gut with beneficial compounds such as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which support health and prevent disease. If we lack sufficient enzyme production, foods can move through the digestive process still intact, thus allowing bacteria further down the tract to ferment them. This may lead to common conditions such as gas, bloating, and distension in the hours following a meal.
Carbohydrate digestion is the area where digestive capacity is most limited.
While there are many forms of carbohydrate maldigestion, lactose intolerance is the most common, and is actually a genetically programmed change that occurs in 2/3 of adults after infancy. Brush border synthesis of lactase decreases in adulthood, leaving many with difficulty breaking down lactose sugars. And while avoidance of dairy is the best way to manage lactose intolerance, supplementing with lactase enzymes can be helpful for inadvertent exposures or occasional indulgences.
Proteins need first to be structurally denatured by gastric acid in the stomach, and protein digesting enzymes called pepsins which hydrolyze the proteins into amino acids. Without sufficient stomach acid, protein digestion cannot occur properly in the duodenum. Fat digestion and absorption are commonly impaired in those with gallstones or those who have had their gallbladder removed, but they can also be disrupted by lack of fat digesting enzymes such as lipase. This can adversely affect the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, K and E.
Certain conditions may increase one’s need for supplemental digestive enzymes.
Any condition affecting the intestinal mucosa, such as Celiac Disease, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, motility disorders, or Inflammatory Bowel Disease may damage the intestinal villi and its enzymes. When mucosal integrity is disrupted, so too is pancreatic signaling, so brush border enzyme deficiency and pancreatic insufficiency can go hand in hand. In diabetics, or anyone with compromised pancreatic function such as chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, or pancreatic cancer, enzyme production may be impaired as well.
Symptoms of enzyme deficiency include:
- abdominal pain
- fatty stool
- and eventually malnutrition or vitamin deficiencies
Supplementing with digestive enzymes or even hydrochloric acid or bile salts may be the solution.
But the good news is, supplementing with digestive enzymes or even hydrochloric acid or bile salts may be the solution to relieving these symptoms permanently. It’s best to work with a knowledgeable practitioner before dabbling in supplements, but in the meantime, take comfort in the fact that your digestion difficulty may soon be a mere memory.
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