What are Digestive Enzymes and why do we need them?
What are digestive enzymes and why do we need them?
Digestive enzymes are produced by your body all the way along your digestive tract from your mouth to your small intestine. They help breakdown macronutrients like carbohydrate, protein and fat into smaller nutrient molecules which your body can easily absorb and utilise.
While each enzyme has a very specific job, for example lactase digests lactose (the protein found in dairy produce), amylase digests carbohydrates and cellulase digests fibre, they also work together, relying on the enzyme before them to have done their bit to be able to complete their job.
Think of it like a conveyor belt for opening a package. If the enzyme which is responsible for cutting the packing tape isn’t there, the next enzyme which is responsible for opening the box can’t do its job and the parcel will move along the conveyor belt unopened so we can’t access the goodies inside!
Over time, this can impact on wider health as your body won’t be able to optimally absorb the nutrients in your foods - even if you’re eating the most healthy nutritious diet possible. As the saying goes: “You’re not what you eat, you are what you absorb”.
Signs you may need to boost your levels of digestive enzymes?
There are certain medical situations which mean you’re more likely to have lower levels of digestive enzymes. Chronic conditions like coeliac disease, Crohn’s, Ulcerative colitis, pancreatitis or liver disease can compromise production of digestive enzymes.
However, it is commonplace for deficiencies or insufficiencies in digestive enzymes to occur as result of everyday health niggles that often go under the radar, such as:
- Low grade inflammation in the gut caused by leaky gut, food allergies or intolerances
- Low stomach acid levels
- Chronic stress
Age also plays a factor as it is generally true that levels of digestive enzymes can diminish as we age. But, you don’t get away with it just because you are the right side of 40. Sugar is universally troublesome and a diet high in processed food can promote inflammation and lead to a requirement for extra digestive enzymes.
How you eat is important:
Your body produces digestive enzymes in response to certain cues which tell your digestion to expect food. But often in life we grab food on the go or eat while doing something else so the body misses these cues. Try these simple habits to boost your digestive enzymes:
- Look at and smell your food before you eat: when you see and smell food it will often make your mouth water - this is your digestive system producing salivary amylase, an enzyme starts the digestion of starches, step one of the digestive enzyme process.
- Focus on eating mindfully. For optimal digestion your body needs to be in a 'rest and digest' state.
- Don’t drink water for 30 minutes before or after you eat as this may dilute the your stomach acid and lower your enzyme levels.
Diet and supplemenet advice:
Under the guidance of a nutrition professional, try removing dairy and gluten from your diet as these are common food allergens. More generally, avoid processed pro-inflammatory foods which can cause gut-wide issues
When looking for a good digestive enzyme supplement find one which provides a wide range of enzymes rather than more limited formula.
*Written by nutritionist Marianna Sulic