What you need to know about digestive enzymes and nutrition
Digestive enzymes are a natural part of digestion. The digestion process begins with the release of digestive enzymes in saliva designed to start digesting carbohydrates, followed by the secretion of proteases in the stomach to break down proteins, and then lipases in the small intestine to address the breakdown of fats.
Along the way, hydrochloric and bile acids are released to convert food into its beneficial molecules, the nutrients and minerals the body needs to function well. Eating is the primary method for introducing nutrition into the body, but not many people are aware that digestive enzymes are the route to releasing that nutrition.
When trying to resolve a health problem, it is commonplace to direct our attention to the suffering area, such as the bowel, or the skin, for example. In doing so, we forget that the body is an environment in which the conditions can change to favour health or increase the chance for sickness.
Ensuring we eat a healthy balanced diet that is supplemented with enzyme foods, is the best way to support a healthy enzyme count.
The key to creating a healthy environment is healthy digestion, which begins with the natural secretion of digestive enzymes that break down food into the micro and macronutrients that will support every function of the human body and support a healthy microbiome. This natural secretion of digestive enzymes can be reduced by lifestyle factors such as toxic load, mineral or nutrient deficiency, stress, poor sleep and age.
As so many things can interfere with the healthy production of digestive enzymes, ensuring we eat a healthy balanced diet that is supplemented with enzyme foods, is the best way to support a healthy enzyme count. If you have digestive and malabsorption disorders, adding a digestive enzyme supplement to your eating routine can be an easy way to ensure we effectively digest as much of the nutrition we are eating as possible.
A healthy body requires minerals and nutrients that are released from fats, carbohydrates and protein. When there is a digestive problem, a person may begin to avoid a healthy food group believing the food, rather than the digestive system, is the cause of the problem. Although sometimes there is a food-specific problem such as an allergy, much of the time the cause of the problem is a digestive weakness.
The key digestive enzyme groups that support healthy digestion are:
- Amylases – which break down carbohydrates and starches.
- Proteases – which break down proteins into amino acids.
- Lipases – which break down fats.
There are also specialist enzymes that help breakdown specific food groups that are commonly found in intolerance reactions. An intolerance reaction is caused by undigested food molecules reaching the small intestine, causing aggravation and inflammation.
Specific digestive enzymes can reduce the likelihood of an intolerance reaction by breaking down the offending food into a smaller molecule that can be more easily digested. A good example of this is lactose intolerance, which is a deficiency of an enzyme called lactase. Of the group of intolerance related enzymes, useful ones to know about are:
- DPP-IV – which is an enzyme that helps to break down gluten.
- Alpha-galactosidase – which helps to break down legumes and cruciferous vegetables.
- Xylanase – which helps to break down fibres.
When food is not properly digested by healthy stomach acid and digestive enzymes, undigested food particles pass through the digestive tract, creating low-level inflammation, food intolerance symptoms, gas, bloating and flatulence reactions. Over time, the gut’s beneficial bacteria are affected, placing us at greater risk of nutrient deficiency or malabsorption.
The gut is the central hub for good health, and a healthy microbiome is critical to virtually every health condition. The digestive tract is the largest and most complex part of the human body. The gut is home to approximately 70% of our immune system and 90% of our neurotransmitters. Crucial for the healthy functioning of the gastrointestinal tract are specialised enzymes that convert the food we eat into micro and macronutrients that we gain from the proper food breakdown.
Digestive enzymes can be negatively affected by chemicals in our food and environment, so there is a strong link between chemical exposure and digestive troubles. Many chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, flame retardants and solvents kill unwanted bacteria and pests, yet also destabilise the healthy functioning of digestive enzymes. Dietary factors and genetics also play a role in how well digestive enzymes are produced or function, while any form of inflammation in the digestive tract such as inflammatory bowel problems, like IBS, will also impair the secretion of digestive enzymes.
Early signs and signals that food is not being digested properly include:
- food intolerance
- fatigue after eating
- food or oil in stool
How to support digestive enzymes with nutrition
When addressing digestive problems, it is crucial to consider the first aspect of digestion: the enzymatic breakdown of macronutrients and micronutrients and the microbiome’s nourishment. The delivery of micronutrients and protection from undigested food particles are key to offsetting digestive complaints. By enhancing digestion at the digestive tract’s upper side, we prevent the problem from journeying through to the intestines and bowel.
Digestive enzymes are incredibly fragile, and can be damaged by factors such as heat. So it’s important to consume some of the above foods in their natural state.
To support your digestion, start by addressing your diet with a nutrition professional. Foods that naturally contain digestive enzymes can enhance digestion, helping the body to break down food. These include:
Digestive enzymes are incredibly fragile, and can be damaged by factors such as heat. So it’s important to consume some of the above foods in their natural state e.g. raw, to gain as much benefit as possible. Your nutrition professional can advise on the safest way to do this.
If you are struggling with digestive enzyme issues and dietary amendment alone isn’t enough, you might consider supplementation. This, of course, should be approved by your nutrition professional. With digestive enzyme supplementation, there can be an improvement in assimilation, detoxification and energy levels.
Here’s how supplementation works: the gastrointestinal tract changes pH throughout the tract (the mouth can vary between pH 6.2 – 7.6, the Oesophagus is typically neutral at pH 7, the stomach pH 1.35 – 3.5, the small intestine pH 6 – 8 and the large intestine pH 5.7 – 6.7). As the pH of their environment changes from acid to alkali, different digestive enzymes are switched on and off. So, full spectrum vegan enzymes are the best choice of enzyme supplementation to remain active throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract.
Vegan enzymes, as opposed to animal-based enzymes, can blend more easily during formulation, and result in supplements that can address many different food digesting aspects. Digestive enzyme blends can provide generalised support or provide specific support for a food group such as a protein, lactose or a gluten intolerance reaction.
Leyla Moudden is a Naturopath and Educator for Enzymedica UK, leaders in the digestive enzyme supplement field.
- H.B. El-Serag, N.J. Talley. (2004) Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 19(6):643-54.
- Sender R, Fuchs S, Milo R (2016) Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body. PLoS Biol 14(8): e1002533.
- Ianiro, G., Pecere, S., Giorgio, V., Gasbarrini, A., & Cammarota, G. (2016). Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases. Current drug metabolism, 17(2), 187–193.
- Jayachandran, M., Chen, J., Chung, S., & Xu, B. (2017). A critical review on the impacts of B-glucans on gut microbiota and human health. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 61, 101-110.
- Atanasov J, Schlörmann W, Trautvetter U, Glei M: The effects of β-glucans on intestinal health. Ernahrungs Umschau 2020; 67(3): 52–9.
- Ko YH, Hong S, Pedersen PL. Chemical mechanism of ATP synthase. Magnesium plays a pivotal role in formation of the transition state where ATP is synthesized from ADP and inorganic phosphate. J Biol Chem. 1999 Oct 8;274(41):28853-6.
- Garrido-Maraver, J., Cordero, M. D., Oropesa-Ávila, M., Fernández Vega, A., de la Mata, M., Delgado Pavón, A., de Miguel, M., Pérez Calero, C., Villanueva Paz, M., Cotán, D., & Sánchez-Alcázar, J. A. (2014). Coenzyme q10 therapy. Molecular syndromology, 5(3-4), 187–197.
Find a nutritionist dealing with Gut health
All therapists are verified professionals.