Are you trying to repair a leaky gut? Do you suffer from chronic digestive issues such as gas, bloating, indigestion, or constipation? Do you experience reflux after a meal? Or do you see pieces of undigested food or a fatty substance in your stool? If so, your body may not be producing enough digestive enzymes, or your enzymes may not be working as well as they should. Today, let’s talk about what digestive enzymes are, what causes enzyme deficiency, and most importantly, how to maintain healthy levels of digestive enzymes.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
When you eat, your body has to break down the food into micro and macro nutrients that can then be absorbed and used by your body. Digestive enzymes are small proteins that act on specific molecules within foods to break them down. Most people are familiar with the enzyme lactase, which is responsible for breaking down the milk sugar called lactose. People who are missing this enzyme are not able to digest milk (known as “lactose-intolerance”). Similarly, there are many other enzymes that each work on a specific type of molecule. If you are deficient in any one of these, your body may not be breaking down food as well as it should, which can cause major issues in the digestive tract.
The digestion process begins in your mouth, where saliva starts breaking down your food. From there your food travels to your stomach, where stomach acid, primarily hydrochloric acid (HCL), begins breaking down proteins. Finally, the majority of digestive enzymes are made by the pancreas. When you eat, the pancreas receives a hormonal signal to release pancreatic juice into the small intestine. Pancreatic juice contains several digestive enzymes, as well as bicarbonate to neutralize the acid from your stomach. The enzymes work in the small intestine to break down the food so it can be absorbed.
Enzymes produced by the pancreas include:
Amylases – these break down starches (complex carbohydrates)
Lipases – these break down fats
Proteases and Peptidases – these break down proteins
In addition, there are a number of enzymes located near the lining of the small intestine (the brush border), most of which break down disaccharides into simple sugars, which can then be absorbed from the intestines into the bloodstream.
How Do Digestive Enzymes Affect Gut Health?
You aren’t what you eat, you’re what you digest and absorb. If your food is not properly digested and absorbed in your small intestines, this can lead to malnourishment, because not enough nutrients are being absorbed by your body. In addition, the undigested food travels down through the digestive tract and provides food for the “bad” bacteria, causing gas and bloating, and leading to dysbiosis as the bad bacteria thrive and outnumber the good bacteria. The amount and type of undigested food that reaches the large intestine may have an important impact on the balance of good and bad bacteria in the colon.
What Causes Digestive Enzyme Deficiency?
Now that we understand the importance of digestive enzymes, let’s look at what causes digestive enzyme deficiency. Conventional medicine only recognizes a few causes of digestive enzyme deficiency, and they are only the most extreme cases, including acute or chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, cancer of the pancreas, gallbladder removal, and diseases of the small intestine that affect the brush border, such as Crohn’s or celiac disease.
Functional medicine, on the other hand, recognizes that there are many underlying health issues that can contribute to enzyme deficiency. Leaky gut is the most common culprit, since it destroys the brush border of your small intestines. Inflammation from food sensitivities and toxins also decreases enzyme production, as well as chronic stress, genetics, and aging. Low stomach acid also plays a role, because an acidic environment is necessary to activate the enzymes responsible for protein digestion.
Beyond the wider scope of causes, functional medicine also differs from conventional medicine in that conventional medicine views enzyme deficiency as a black and white issue, you have “normal” levels or you are severely deficient. In functional medicine, we see wellness as a spectrum, and recognize that just because you’re not to the point of severe deficiency, doesn’t mean that your levels are optimal or that your health won’t improve by increasing them. Increasing digestive enzymes eases the burden of many of the most common root causes of chronic disease, including leaky gut, infections such as Candida or SIBO, and chronic inflammation caused by a poor diet.
How Do You Treat Digestive Enzyme Deficiency?
In functional medicine, we use the 4R Approach to heal your gut, and replenishing your digestive enzymes through a digestive enzyme supplement is a key part of step number two, restore the good. Restoring digestive enzymes not only ensures that you properly break down and absorb the nutrients from your food, a recent study showed that digestive enzymes may improve not only gastrointestinal symptoms, but also behavioral symptoms in children with autism.
So, if you’re overcoming a leaky gut, transitioning from a diet of processed foods, having digestive issues such as gas, bloating, indigestion, reflux, diarrhea, constipation, or undigested food in your stool, digestive enzymes might be an essential part of your achieving optimal health.
*Content above is adapted from Dr. Amy Myers.
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