When you hear the words “digestive enzymes,” you probably wonder what they do and if you should be taking them. This is one area where I see a lot of confusion. Nutritional supplementation without knowing what you're doing or why you’re doing it can be just as detrimental to your health as doing nothing at all. So let’s talk about digestive enzymes. This is part 1 of a 2 part series.
What are digestive enzymes and why are they so important?
We eat food but our digestive system doesn’t absorb food - it absorbs nutrients. Things like steak or broccoli need to be broken down into nutrient pieces: amino acids (from proteins), fatty acids and cholesterol (from fats), and simple sugars (from carbohydrates), as well as vitamins and minerals. Digestive enzymes, which are primarily produced in the pancreas and small intestine, are what break down our food into absorbable nutrients.
If we don’t have enough digestive enzymes, we can’t break down our food. This means that even though we’re eating well, we aren’t absorbing all of that good nutrition.
What causes digestive enzymes to stop working correctly in the body?
A number of things can prevent your digestive enzymes from working properly.
Pancreatic problems: cystic fibrosis, pancreatic cancer, pancreatitis
Brush border dysfunction: celiac disease (this is where the brush border along the intestine is flattened or destroyed) and Crohn’s disease
Low-grade inflammation: food allergies, intestinal permeability, dysbiosis, parasitic infections
Low stomach acid: typically caused by medications
Chronic stress: this is the most common reason for digestive enzyme problems
How do we restore a digestive enzyme deficiency?
A couple of steps are required to help restore a digestive enzyme deficiency.
First: Eat a healthy, whole-food diet. A healthy, whole-food diet (one example is a Paleo-style diet) can help restore normal digestive function. Dietary interventions work by reducing inflammation in the body and the digestive tract, improving nutrient deficiencies, decreasing enzyme inhibitors, and helping restore gut bacteria.
Remember, just because you eat good food doesn’t automatically mean your digestive system will be healthy. So eat a healthy, whole-food diet.
Second: Manage your stress. As mentioned above, chronic stress is the most common reason for digestive enzyme problems. Managing chronic stress is vitally important to restoring healthy digestive function.
Our lifestyle has a major impact on digestion. The human body has two modes: sympathetic “fight or flight” and parasympathetic “rest and digest.” When we’re in “fight or flight” mode, digestion is given a very low priority, which means digestive function, including digestive enzyme production, is decreased. Most of us are living in a state of constant "fight or flight." We are eating at our desks, checking our phones and watching TV while eating, and constantly on the go. On the other hand, when we sit down, relax, and enjoy our food, our body switches into parasympathetic mode. Being in this mode of "rest and digest" ensures our body properly digests and absorbs the nutrients from our food.
Check back for part 2 of this series when I'll discuss:
How to know if you should be taking a digestive enzyme
The types of digestive enzymes to take
When and how to take a digestive enzyme supplement