The Little Guys
Everyone is focused on what they eat, but what about how they digest?
People have a general idea of what digestive enzymes are, but not many have considered the scope of their importance and the role they play for overall health.
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 (digestion begins in the mouth, after all). But these enzymes do not digest food -they digest nutrients.
Digestive enzymes are the catalysts that are 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
This process is by no means simple. Dozens of different enzymes work together along the 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.
As you can imagine, this complex exchange is responsible for the body’s access to fuel.
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. I say this all the time to clients. 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.
Luckily, enzyme production is versatile and can be tailored to the composition of food consumed. However, if a diet doesn’t include essential enzymes, or if the body is unable to produce enough enzymes to promote healthy digestion and diverse microbial life, you run the risk of malnutrition. This could lead to symptoms such as:
- Thyroid issues
- Lackluster hair, skin, and nails
- Mood swings
Studies have shown that the autoimmune system, which protects us from pathogens and harmful components in the environment, may owe its efficiency to digestive enzymes. 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.
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.
This is a helpful reminder to slow down. The body is not meant to adequately digest and absorb nutrients as we are running out the door, inhaling our food, and then chugging liquid to get that food 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.As obesity levels climb, it’s easy to see how a simple change like sitting down for meals could provide a fulfilling way to de-stress and allow our enzymes to provide break down those nutrients that will speed us on our way.
Enzyme production is 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. If you’re not already incorporating them into your diet, that’s a good start.
And then of course, there are digestive enzyme supplements. Make sure to check for quality ingredients that leave out fillers that could denature the enzymes. My favorites? Digestzymes by Designs for Health and Bio-gest by Thorne.
Struggling with heartburn? Headaches? Bloating? Gas? Sign up for my FREE 5 day gut reset HERE, complete with recipes.
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.
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/