However, even healthy people commonly have a problem digesting certain foods such as dairy or wheat products.
Digestive enzymes are necessary for the complete digestion and assimilation of foods. They break down complex nutrients into simpler, smaller compounds that can be more easily absorbed.
They help us release the energy in food to fuel our bodies by facilitating the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, fiber and fats.
In addtion to getting digestive enzymes from food, our bodies also produce some of them.
The microvilli that line the GI tract act as the primary surface of nutrient absorption; the microvillar membranes are normally packed with digestive enzymes.
What Happens if You Don’t Have Enough Digestive Enzymes?
When there is an insufficient quantity of digestive enzymes in the body (or deficiency of particular ones), undigested food may pass into the large intestine and be acted upon by intestinal flora.
The undigested food actually becomes a source of nutrition for the bacteria, yeast and other microorganisms. Sometimes this undigested food overfeeds certain microflora which may lead to an overgrowth situation.
Due to the byproducts of bacterial and yeast fermentation, a person may experience digestive distress such gas, bloating, cramping, stomach upset or diarrhea. The byproducts include hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane gas.
These byproducts can also be irritating to the gut mucosa leading to inflammatory responses which may damage gut integrity, further impair digestion, and depress the absorption of nutrients.
If the gut integrity is compromised, it can affect the health of many other of the body’s systems, such as the immune and neurological systems.
Aging and Enzyme Production
As we get older, in general our bodies become less efficient and that includes the increased likelihood of producing fewer digestive enzymes as we age. It takes a lot of energy for the body to produce enzymes.
In addition to experiencing uncomfortable GI symptoms, an older person often “loses out” because he or she is less efficient at accessing the nutritional value of the foods they eat.
It’s common to experience digestive difficulty from time to time. Some people use a full-spectrum digestive enzyme with each meal or on an “as needed” basis.
Taking a digestive enzyme supplement when your diet and body do not supply a sufficient amount on their own, enables healthy digestion of proteins, fats, fibers and carbohydrates. Oral digestive enzymes (proteases, lipases and amylases) have been used for a long time in medicine and post-surgery, when the body cannot produce enough enzymes of its own.
Digestive enzyme supplements should be taken at the beginning of a meal (first bite of food), so they can “work” on the food you eat.
Digestive enzyme supplements help aid digestion, thereby lessening symptoms associated with impaired digestion and improving well-being. Enzyme supplementation also supports the health and functionality of the GI tract.
Nutritional supplements with digestive enzymes vary in their potency (amount of each enzyme) as well as the spectrum of enzymes (which substrates they work on).
Food Intolerances and Enzymes
So far we’ve been focusing on the wide spectrum of digestive enzymes.
But sometimes a person experiences a food intolerance because he or she has impaired digestion due to lack of one or more particular digestive enzymes. Usually this is due to their inability to produce the enzyme(s).
Food intolerance or sensitivity, unlike food allergies, is not life threatening, but is uncomfortable and may undermine nutritional health.
Food allergies, which can be life threatening, involve the production of antibodies and is mediated by histamine.
If you are able to identify the particular foods that cause sensitivity and eliminate or reduce them from your diet, your symptoms should subside. Many people work with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist when they are on an elimination diet.
Another strategy is to use enzyme supplementation in combination with the elimination diet or other dietary modifications.
For example, someone with lactose intolerance may have eliminated dairy from their diet, but want to have ice cream once in a while. A nutrition supplement that contains the deficient enzyme lactase may enable the person to enjoy the treat without abdominal discomfort.
Did you know that it’s estimated that 30-50 million Americans have lactose intolerance? And after about two years of age, the body begins to produce less lactase.
What If You’re Not Sure What’s in Your Food
If you do a lot of your own cooking, it’s fairly easy to get a handle of and control what ingredients are in your meals.
But, if becomes more difficult if you are eating out at restaurants or eating partially prepared or processed foods; they often contain trigger foods of which you may not be aware.
In that case an enzyme supplement that supports multiple food intolerances such as gluten, dairy, casein, and fibrous gas forming beans may minimize problematic GI symptoms.
Read a more indepth explanation of Enzymes, what they are and their roles throughout the body, including digestion and immunity.
You’ll also learn how to get more enzymes from food and about some of the most common food intolerances.