What are enzymes and why do we need them for our digestion? How does the food we eat turn into these small individual compounds we call nutrients? Let’s find out today!
I am guessing every one of us experienced some kind of digestive distress in the past – bloating, gas, diarrhea, stomach aches, heartburn… all these issues are very unpleasant, especially when they become chronic, and they are actually signaling to us that something is not right in the body. If you are used to dismissing your digestive issues as a common, everyday thing, you might want to start paying attention instead, because you might be suffering from a serious deficit of important digestive enzymes.
WHAT ARE ENZYMES?
Enzymes in general are basically chemical reaction accelerators, and they take care of several different tasks, including digestion. There are different types of enzymes our body naturally produces, but we can also obtain them from food and supplements.
The word enzyme comes from the Greek word enzymos which means causing change or fermenting. Enzymes are protein molecules necessary for digestion (and decomposition) of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) into simple molecules that are later used as fuel and building material for new cells. They are able to speed up chemical reactions in the body up to 1 milion times!
Chemical reactions in the body happen constantly, literally 24/7, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of them happening at the same time. The human body contains thousands of different enzymes with all kinds of functions. Some of these functions include muscle building, toxin elimination, breaking down food, or connecting molecules back together. Changing the structure of an enzyme can cause it to stop functioning properly, and this can be caused by multiple factors, including temperature, chemical changes in the environment, or a specific disease.
In 1894, Emil Fisher came up with a “Lock and Key Theory,” explaining how enzymes work. To put it simply, the active part of an enzyme is like a lock, and only a matching molecule is able to bind to that enzyme for the reaction to unlock. This makes enzymes very specific, and that is also why we recognize so many types of enzymes.
Today, we want to talk specifically about digestive enzymes that help us break down food into individual nutrients. It is great if we eat a clean diet full of vitamins and minerals, but if we don’t digest the food properly, we can’t make use of these precious nutrients!
Digestive enzymes are produced in the pancreas, stomach, and small intestine, but also in our mouths! Digestion starts with chewing and swallowing food, and our salivary glands produce enzymes, so the process of breaking down the food can start as soon as possible. That is why we are often encouraged to eat slowly, mindfully, and chew our food properly – it takes some burden away from the stomach. Digestion is a lot of work for the body, and the sooner it starts during the eating process, the better!
We recognize three basic types of digestive enzymes based on the nutrients they help decompose:
- Amylase (breaks down carbohydrates or starches into sugars)
- Protease (breaks down proteins into amino acids)
- Lipase (breaks down fats into glycerol and fatty acids)
Amylase production starts in the salivary glands (this type of amylase is called ptyalin), so the breakdown of carbohydrates can start during chewing, and it stays active after swallowing. It is also produced in the pancreas and small intestine, where it continues to further break down complex sugars into glucose. In the stomach, amylase is neutralized by the stomach acids, but later, in the small intestines, one more dose of amylase helps starches to completely break down.
Because there are different types of carbohydrates (keys), we need more types of amylase (locks) to match!
- Saccharase (also known as invertase or sucrase) – breaks down saccharose into glucose and fructose
- Maltase – breaks down maltose into glucose
- Lactase – breaks down lactose into glucose and galactose
Confused about all the words that look and sound very similar? Remember, if it ends with -ase, it is an enzyme. If it ends with -ose, it is a type of carbohydrate.
Protease breaks down proteins into amino acids, supports immunity and cell division, and is also important for blood coagulation and protein recycling. It is produced in the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine. It is a key enzyme for essential amino acid absorption.
There are many different types of protease, the three main ones are:
Produced in the pancreas and small intestine, but also found in mothers’ milk to help the baby break down fat molecules. Lipase is not the only player in the fat digestion game, bile plays a huge role as well. When the fat from the food we eat gets into the small intestines, the gallbladder starts releasing the bile first, fats are broken down into smaller molecules, and then lipase is able to break these down further into glycerol and fatty acids.
WHAT AFFECTS OUR ENZYMES?
There are a number of things that can disrupt our enzyme production and function. Body temperature is one of them. Enzymes do well when our body temperature is within the range of 96.9°-98.9°F (36.1°-37.2°C), so if you have a fever, your enzymes might not work correctly. If there is any inflammation in the body causing the body temperature to rise, that is an issue for digestion as well.
Many pancreatic problems lower enzyme production. pH levels in the body are another issue that strongly affects your enzymes. And then there is the food we eat! The food we eat actually affects our pH, our level of inflammation, state of our organs, so again, this is a friendly reminder that food matters. Probably more than you think!
DIGESTIVE ENZYME RICH FOODS
A healthy body produces all the enzymes it needs, but eating enzyme-rich foods is an amazing digestive boost for those who suffer from any type of digestive issue. Let’s talk about the major ones! The key issue is raw, because cooking will destroy the enzymes.
Kefir is known to be amazing probiotic food. It is a fermented dairy product of a distinctive taste. It is very rich in lactase, lipase, and protease! Drinking kefir does not only support your gut flora but also boosts your enzyme supply! The best part? You can easily make it at home!
Pineapple is rich in bromelain, an enzyme responsible for breaking down proteins. If you are an avid meat eater, eating some raw pineapple will not only be a perfect part of a tasty dinner but also help you digest your steak faster.
(Fun fact: I learned how bromelain works while making pineapple juice based gummies. They just didn’t get solid, because the enzyme did not allow the gelatin to actually gel!)
Banana is not just a delicious source of carbohydrates, it contains amylase, maltase, and glucosidase necessary for the digestion of carbs. Did you ever wonder why green, less ripe bananas are less sweet than the softer, more ripe pieces? It is actually because enzymes in the fruit slowly break down starches into sugars as they ripen!
Just like pineapple, papaya is great for people who need help with protein digestion. It contains a protease called papain. If you are not a fan of pineapple, maybe papaya will be your fruit of choice!
Excellent source of probiotics, vitamins, minerals, and lactic acid, sauerkraut is a nutrition powerhouse! It includes digestive enzymes too! Just make sure you eat it raw and uncooked, because heat will deactivate these enzymes.
Enzymes support digestion, so lack of enzymes means insufficient digestion. Sometimes, what our body makes is not enough. What we ingest with our food is not enough. When digestive problems are constant and chronic, your body might need more support than adding the enzyme rich foods listed above.
Here is the most concerning thing about enzymes and our bodies. As we age, our enzyme production starts to decline. And I am not talking about a small decline after the age of 60! It starts around the age of 20, and then the production goes down by an average of 13% every decade!
Also, we eat plenty of cooked food, and cooking at a high temperature destroys these valuable enzymes! Not having enough digestive enzymes leads to a deficit of metabolic enzymes, and this is believed to be one possible root of many chronic health problems, including chronic malnutrition, reduced ability to recover from illness and injury, and of course poor digestion.
You can be consuming a lot of meat and not digest it properly! Many people who eat meat think it might be the meat itself that is the issue, but lack of enzyme breaking down all that protein is the more likely culprit!
So what do we do? We give our bodies as much support as we need! There is no such thing as too many digestive enzymes, so there is a zero chance of overdose. And we offer a wide range of enzyme supplements for you to try!
If you are lactose intolerant, try the Digestive Enzymes MF and see if you can enjoy some occasional dairy product again with no bloating and pain! Digestive Enzymes HP is an excellent option for all vegans and vegetarians that need some digestive support. If your biggest enemy is gluten, Digestive Enzymes AL was made for you! And if you are in the mood for an extra treat, ZoeTein is one of our personal favorites, a unique blend of probiotics, enzymes, and amino acids in one bottle. Take a look in the whole category.
If you are not sure where to start or which option is the most optimal for your specific body, feel free to call (866) 543 3388! Your health coach is always here to answer your questions and help you navigate your personal health journey!