Digestion & Enzymes
How Your Digestion Affects You
Importance of Digestive Enzymes
Our digestive tract fulfills a role in breaking down food so the constituents that are useful for the body can be absorbed properly. This process involves a vast orchestra of digestive juices and acids that are released at specific times during the digestive process. These digestive juices contain a highly specific array of digestive enzymes and other crucial digestive substances, which are capable of reducing most foods into their simplest state: carbohydrates to sugars, proteins to amino acids, etc. In addition, enzymes also serve to stave off infections and harmful organisms. As we are appreciating more about the importance of our gut, we are realizing the role that the digestive tract plays in maintaining a healthy immune system. There are many terrible consequences of poor digestion, however there are ways of taking care of your diet, as well as supplementing your digestive enzymes, to ensure perfect gut health.
The incredibly complex process of breaking down and absorbing nutrients from food begins in your mouth as you are chewing, and ends in the colon where water continues to be absorbed from feces. The varied array of enzymes that help to carry out this process can be divided into groups depending on their action:
- amylase, breaking down complex carbohydrates
- lactase, breaking down lactose sugars (found in milk and other dairy products)
- maltase, breaking down maltose sugars (commonly found in cereal grains)
- sucrase, breaking down sucrose sugars
- cellulase, breaking down complex fiber
- lipase, breaking down fats
- protease, breaking down proteins into amino acids
So, the naming of enzymes is very clearly related to their function. The specificity of enzymes is their hallmark: the fact that they are particularly suited to breaking down a specific large molecule into something more manageable and absorbable. Another aspect of this specificity is that their function is restricted to a narrow range of pH, or how acidic or alkaline the environment is. This serves the purpose of ensuring that the correct enzymes are functioning at a particular point in the digestive tract. The conditions in the stomach, for example, are very acidic when digestion starts (triggered by your chewing or even thinking about food). This acidity is provided by hydrochloric acid, which converts the inactive protein-digesting pepsinogen enzyme to its active form, pepsin.
What Causes a Disruption of Digestive Enzymes?
A disrupted digestive system can come about for many reasons, such as a course of antibiotics, a stay in hospital or a period of changing lifestyle. We have all experienced digestive problems at one time or another. Diarrhea and constipation, gas and bloating are common symptoms that can be a clue as to an underlying digestive problem. More seriously, malnutrition can result from poor breaking down of food – when the process goes wrong, you are at risk of not getting the minerals and other critical nutrients that you need for your body to function normally. Lactose intolerance, which is thought to occur in 75% of the adult population, can cause in the mildest of cases digestive discomfort and diarrhea. This does not necessarily mean that you have to go on a restrictive diet however; there are a range of digestive enzymes, the best being extracted from natural sources, that can help get your digestion back on track.
Digestive enzymes can be taken in supplement form to help you to digest more efficiently. In this way, other knock on effects of proper digestion can be achieved, such as improving digestion and maintaining a barrier against harmful organisms. Depending upon the enzyme, they are extracted from plant, animal, or bacteria. Plant enzymes are extracted from, for example, pineapple-like plants (bromelain). Animal enzymes are usually extracted from the liver and pancreas of pigs and cows, and these include chymotripsin, rennin and pepsin. In addition, stomach acids and pancreatic juices are extracted – this is significant for many adults as digestive vigor falls significant year upon year. This may be why digestive problems increase as we age. Taking digestive enzyme supplements could help to relieve these symptoms and in fact to preempt the gradual decline in digestion, as well as improving digestion and relieving symptoms of bloating when we have the occasional calorie-heavy or fat-heavy meal.