Digestive Enzymes: What You Need to Know

Digestive Enzymes: What You Need to Know

Digestive enzymes play a crucial role in maintaining overall digestive health by assisting in the breakdown of food particles into smaller molecules that can be easily absorbed by your body. Without these enzymes, the digestion process would be inefficient, leading to nutrient deficiencies and digestive problems.

What are Digestive Enzymes?

Digestive enzymes are proteins released by the salivary glands and cells which line the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine to catalyse the digestion process. They work by speeding up the chemical reactions that break down food into essential nutrients. They do this by splitting the large molecules that make up proteins, carbs, and fats into smaller molecules. This means that nutrients from these various food groups can be absorbed into your blood and carried to where they are needed in your body.

Certain conditions such as lactose intolerance or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency can result in digestive enzyme deficiencies. When this occurs, it can be managed by introducing appropriate foods or digestive enzyme supplements.

There are various triggers for the release of digestive enzymes and the main ones are when we think about food and look forward to eating, when we smell and taste food, and during the digestive process itself. Many foods need the appropriate enzymes to break down the nutrients they contain but there are certain health issues, particularly those affecting the pancreas, which can cause deficiencies in these enzymes. This problem can often be solved by eliminating the offending foods from your diet and by adding foods that contain the necessary digestive enzymes.

Enzyme Types and Functions

Enzymes work by binding to specific molecules and breaking them down into smaller compounds that can be absorbed

Enzymes work by binding to specific molecules and breaking them down into smaller compounds that can be absorbed. Your body uses enzymes not only for digestion but also for various metabolic processes, such as energy production and cell repair.

Understanding how enzymes work and how your body uses them is essential for appreciating their role in your general health.
There are several types of digestive enzymes, each with a specific function for breaking down different types of nutrients:

Amylase

Amlylas digests carbohydrates and breaks down starches into sugars. It is secreted by the salivary glands and the pancreas. Levels of amylase in the blood can be used as an indication when diagnosing various pancreas or other diseases involving the digestive tract.

When high levels of amylase are found in the blood it can indicate blockages of the ducts of the pancreas, pancreatic cancer or acute pancreatitis which is when there is inflammation of the pancreas.
Low levels of amylase may indicate chronic pancreatitis which is more long-term inflammation of the pancreas. Low levels may also indicate liver disease.

Maltase

Maltase is released by the small intestine and breaks down malt sugar into glucose (simple sugar) which is then either used by the body for energy or stored in the liver in the form of glycogen for later use.

Lactase

Lactase is an enzyme which breaks down lactose, the sugar from dairy products and changes it into glucose. It is made by cells that line the intestinal tract and any lactose that is not absorbed becomes fermented by gut bacteria causing stomach pain and wind.

Lipase

Lipase breaks down fats into fatty acids and glycerol (simple sugar alcohol). It is produced in tiny quantities by your mouth and stomach and in larger quantities by your pancreas.

Sucrase

Sucrase is produced by the small intestine where it converts sucrose (the sugar you eat which is contained in desserts, confectionary and drinks etc) into fructose and glucose. These are sugar types which the body is better able to absorb (within limits).

Proteases

Also known as peptidases. These are a group of digestive enzymes secreted mainly by the pancreas, which break down proteins into amino acids. They also play a part in many other body functions such as cell division, immune function, and blood clotting.

These enzymes all work in synergy to ensure that nutrients are efficiently broken down and absorbed by your body. Efficient enzyme activity is essential for the proper breakdown of nutrients in the digestive system, preventing undigested food particles from causing digestive problems.

Enzyme Balance and Regulation

Maintaining a balance of enzymes in the body is crucial for optimal digestion and overall health. Regulatory mechanisms control enzyme activity and distribution, ensuring that the right enzymes are produced in the right amounts at the right time. Imbalances in enzyme production or regulation can disrupt the digestion process, leading to nutrient malabsorption and digestive disorders.

There are certain health conditions that interfere with the production of sufficient digestive enzymes to properly digest foods. Some of these are genetically inherited conditions or they may be the result of a mutation which can develop without a proven cause.

Certain disorders or medications can lead to a condition known as pancreatic enzyme insufficiency:

  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Gastrointestinal surgeries
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Any condition that affects your pancreas

Digestive enzymes play a significant role in gut health by ensuring that nutrients are absorbed efficiently. Enzyme support can help prevent digestive issues such as indigestion, bloating, and nutrient deficiencies. By promoting optimal digestion, enzymes contribute to overall well-being and vitality.

Often there is confusion between probiotics and digestive enzymes. Both affect digestion but in different ways. Probiotics are live organisms that make up the good bacteria in your gut and they have a supporting role to the work of digestive enzymes. Probiotics cannot break down or digest foods, whereas enzymes do just that. Read more about Probiotics.

Foods Rich in Digestive Enzymes

Tropical fruits such as banana, papaya and kiwi are naturally high in digestive enzymes.

There are certain foods which are naturally high in digestive enzymes and including them in your regular diet will encourage your digestive system to utilise certain nutrients.

Tropical fruits and fermented vegetables are particularly good, and it is best to eat them raw as heat lessens the enzyme quality:

  • Avocado (lipases) – helps metabolise fat.
  • Banana (amylases, proteases) – breaks down carbs from starches into simple sugars.
  • Ginger (protease) – helps break down proteins and helps ease nausea.
  • Kefir (lipase, proteases) – lactase in kefir digests fermented milk and may help with lactose intolerance.
  • Kimchi (lipases) – fermented foods produce enzymes during fermentation, resulting in production of probiotics.
  • Kiwi (proteases) – as well as having digestive enzymes, kiwi is high in fibre.
  • Mango (amylases) – breaks down carbs from starches into simple sugars.
  • Miso (lactases, proteases, amylases) – fermented soy paste breaks down lactose in dairy, fat, proteins, and carbs.
  • Papaya (proteases) – contains the enzyme papain which has long been heralded as an excellent gut health booster. Eating raw papaya helps digest proteins and helps with allergies.
  • Pineapple (proteases) – bromelain in pineapple has anti-inflammatory qualities and helps digest proteins.
  • Raw honey (amylases, proteases) – breaks down starches, sugars, and protein.
  • Sauerkraut (lipases, proteases) – fermented foods produce good bacteria for gut health.

Enzyme Supplementation

Enzyme supplements can provide support if you have enzyme deficiencies or digestive disorders. These supplements contain concentrated forms of specific enzymes to aid in the digestion of various nutrients. When choosing an enzyme supplement, it is essential to consider factors such as the type of enzymes included, dosage, and quality to ensure effectiveness. A natural dietary supplement containing bromelain from fresh pineapple and papain from the papaya fruit provides an excellent enzyme boost to support your digestive health.

Digestive enzyme supplements are available without prescription to support healthy digestion but for pancreatic conditions it is recommended that supplements are prescribed by a doctor.

Conclusion

Enzymes are essential for optimal digestive health as well as general health. Understanding the role of enzymes in the digestion process, as well as their types, functions, and benefits, can help you make informed choices about what kind of enzyme support you need.

As well as playing a critical role in digestive health, their impact extends way beyond the gut to influence overall well-being. Other areas of health impacted by enzyme function include the immune system, energy production, and inflammation regulation, so in supporting enzyme health, you will enhance your general health and boost your energy levels.

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