While it’s common to focus on what we eat, the real magic lies in how our bodies digest these foods. Understanding digestive enzymes is crucial, as they play a pivotal role in our overall health, far beyond mere digestion.
These enzymes don’t just break down food; they unlock the vital nutrients our bodies need. Let’s dive deeper into their significance and impact on various aspects of our daily wellness.
What They Are and What They Do
Digestion doesn’t just take place in your stomach. The pancreas produces a large portion of your digestive enzymes, as do the small intestine, stomach lining, liver, and salivary glands[i] (digestion begins in the mouth, after all). But these enzymes do not digest food -they digest nutrients.
Digestive enzymes are catalysts responsible for breaking down food to extract nutrients. They are then converted to:
- Amino acids from proteins
- Fatty acids and cholesterol from fats
- Simple and complex sugars from carbohydrates
- And other vitamins, minerals, and compounds.[ii]
This process is by no means a simple input-output. Dozens of different enzymes work together along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to break down macronutrients from the foods you eat. These nutrients are then sent through the bloodstream to the liver and then are absorbed into the lymphatic system, which distributes them to tissues, organs, and muscles.[iii]
As you can imagine, this complex exchange is responsible for the body’s access to fuel. But it doesn’t end there. Digestive enzymes affect factors for daily life that are not often considered.
You can eat all the healthy food in the world, but if you can’t absorb it, not even the healthiest of diets will do any good. However, our bodies can only digest what it’s given. High-fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables contain enzymes of their own that work with digestive enzymes to break down foods faster and allow your body to access nutrients quickly for cell reparation and growth.[iv]
Luckily, enzyme production is versatile and can be tailored to the composition of food consumed. However, if a diet doesn’t include this pairing of essential enzymes, or if the body is unable to produce enough enzymes to promote healthy digestion and diverse microbial life[v], you run the risk of malnutrition. This could lead to symptoms such as:
- Thyroid issues
- Lackluster hair, skin, and nails
- Mood swings
- And depression[vi]
To this end, maintaining a healthy diet is imperative to support the intricate process of enzyme production.
Immune System Support
Studies have been cited that the autoimmune system, which protects us from pathogens and harmful components in the environment, may owe its efficiency to digestive enzymes.[vii] As humans have evolved, enzyme production followed suit with microbial gut flora producing various enzymes to respond to different pathological and environmental threats. This line of defense allows the body to recognize and eliminate many dangers before they can infect the rest of the body.
In a study performed on rats, it was reported that aging affects the ability of the pancreas to produce enzymes. The rats were fed altered diets and the results showed a higher adaptability in enzyme excretion in the younger rats than in the older ones. [viii]
As we age, our ability to adapt to changes in diet and nutrient absorption slows. In some, this can lead to chronic digestive ailments. Though enzymes are not solely responsible for the aging process, they play a large role in how nutrients reach the areas that need them in all stages of life.
Enzymes and Chronic Stress
Our enzymes could be telling us to slow down. Chronic stress plagues countless individuals, but just because we always seem to be on the go doesn’t mean our food needs to be. It limits the amount of enzymes your body can produce as the brain attempts to eliminate the stressor before it can reengage in normal functions-like digestion. [ix]
This is a helpful reminder to slow down.
When we can’t digest our food, we can’t provide our bodies with nutrients. Recurring bouts of anxiety can lead to indigestion and even pesky habits like comfort eating and snacking.[x] As obesity levels skyrocket, it is easy to see how a simple change like sitting down for meals could provide a fulfilling way to destress and allow our enzymes to provide break down those nutrients that will speed us on our way.
Enzyme production is intrinsically tied to well-being and it is important to take them into consideration when planning for your health. Certain foods like pineapple, mango, papaya, and honey have been used in Central and South America for centuries to regulate digestion and inflammation in the GI tract.[xi]
If you ever become concerned about your enzyme production, supplements are widely available, though cheaper doesn’t always mean better. Make sure to check for quality ingredients that leave out fillers that could denature the enzymes. Talk to your doctor for more information and remember to take care of your enzymes so that they can take care of you.
[i] Wallace M. The Digestive System & How it Works. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. September 2013. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works. Accessed May 17, 2017.
[ii] Wallace M. The Digestive System & How it Works. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. September 2013. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works. Accessed May 17, 2017.
[iii] Wallace M. The Digestive System & How it Works. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. September 2013. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/digestive-system-how-it-works. Accessed May 17, 2017.
[v] Conlon MA, Bird AR. The Impact of Diet and Lifestyle on Gut Microbiota and Human Health. Nutrients. 2015;7(1):17-44. doi:10.3390/nu7010017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4303825/
[vii] Van Niekerk G, Engelbrecht A-M. Commentary on: “A common origin for immunity and digestion.” Frontiers in Microbiology. 2015; 6:531. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2015.00531. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4445048/
[viii] Greenberg RE, Holt PR. Influence of aging upon pancreatic digestive enzymes. Digestive diseases and sciences. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2426064. Published September 1986. Accessed May 17, 2017.
[ix] Dallman MF, Pecoraro N, Akana SF, et al. Chronic stress and obesity: A new view of “comfort food”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. http://www.pnas.org/content/100/20/11696.full?tab=author-info. Published September 15, 2013. Accessed May 17, 2017.
[x] Dallman MF, Pecoraro N, Akana SF, et al. Chronic stress and obesity: A new view of “comfort food”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. http://www.pnas.org/content/100/20/11696.full?tab=author-info. Published September 15, 2013. Accessed May 17, 2017.
[xi] Ehrlich SD. Bromelain. University of Maryland Medical Center. http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/supplement/bromelain. Published June 26, 2014. Accessed May 17, 2017.