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Digestive Enzymes

Healthy food (fruits, vegetables and berries) in hands.

If you eat an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean-type diet and are in good health (including a healthy gut), your body likely produces adequate amounts of digestive enzymes.

However, even healthy people may 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 addition to getting digestive enzymes from food (raw fruit and vegetables), our bodies also produce some of them.

The microvilli that line the GI tract are normally packed with digestive enzymes and are the primary surface where nutrients are absorbed. However when there is gut inflammation, microvilli and their ability to house digestive enzymes are compromised.

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 and lead to inflammatory responses which may further 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. That includes the increased likelihood of producing fewer digestive enzymes. 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.

Supporting Digestion with Digestive Enzyme Supplements

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.

Nutrition 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

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, 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 intolerance 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 lactase nutrition supplement 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.

Read a more indepth explanation of Enzymes, what they are and their roles throughout the body, including digestion and immunity.

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