Digestive Enzymes and Nutrient Absorption
By Ryan Harrison, MA, BCIH
One thing that many people overlook, however, is the importance of a largely underappreciated biochemical process. This is the domain of digestive enzymes.
The truth is, you are not really what you eat. You are what you absorb. And when you swallow a bite of chewed, mashed-together food (technically called a “bolus”), your body has to continue working on it to prepare it for nutrient absorption. This is done by digestive enzymes, chemical compounds that digest and break down large food particles into smaller units.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
There are several different enzymes, and each one interacts with the different foods that you eat. For example:
- protease breaks down proteins
- lipase works on dietary fats
- amylase targets starches and
- cellulase helps with the digestion of dietary fiber
Enzymes from Food
Raw fruits and vegetables also contain naturally occurring enzymes, which give your body support in digesting these foods when they’re eaten. Some of these, such as papain (from papaya) and bromelain (from pineapple) are also good at helping to digest proteins such as those you get from meats.
Other than the enzymes that come ready-to-use in raw fruits and vegetables, your body manufactures digestive enzymes via nutrients you get from food. For example, zinc is required in the synthesis of proteases. When your diet is rich in all the vitamins and minerals your body requires, it makes digestive enzymes and releases them during the process of digestion.
This takes place throughout the digestive journey, starting in the mouth where ptyalin, amylase, and lipase start to work on carbohydrates and fats. The stomach, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder each play a role, as well, releasing various enzymes into the digestive tract as required to continue the chemical break-down of food into small enough particles that your body can absorb the nutrients embedded in each bite.
Many people, however, don’t eat very nutritious foods. Sadly, a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is not typical. More often, a person’s diet contains processed foods that have been stripped of nutrients and to which copious amounts of sugar and fat have been added.
With this kind of diet, it can be difficult for the body to produce all the enzymes required to break down and process nutrient-poor foods; it’s not uncommon for people’s production of enzymes to be significantly reduced by middle-age. In fact, one doctor suggested that as many as 58% of the U.S. population may be suffering from digestive issues, and many of these may be related to an insufficiency of digestive enzymes. Common digestive complaints associated with this condition include upset stomach, gas, bloating, and other kinds of digestive pain and discomfort.
Supplements for Digestive Health
Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to support your digestive health by supplementing with digestive enzymes. Taking a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme supplement with your meals ensures that your body will have the enzymes required to properly process and make use of the food you’re taking in, while also helping to mitigate some of the complaints you might experience due to poor digestion. Admittedly, it can be confusing to look at a bottle of digestive enzymes and know what you’re getting; they’re measured in active units instead of milligrams, so the numbers may not always make sense. A good rule of thumb is that the higher the number next to an enzyme’s name on a label, the more potent it is.
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Honeycutt, M. (n.d.). How to Measure the Potency of Food Enzymes, Retrieved July 23, 2011 from http://www.ehow.com/how_6046429_measure-potency-food-enzymes.html