So What Are Digestive Enzymes Anyway?

Our digestion influences pretty much every aspect of our health. But you may be surprised that just because you eat a healthy diet, it doesn’t mean your body is reaping the benefits of all that good food.

Dietary health begins with what we eat, but it continues inside the body in how we process that food into the nutrients our body can absorb and metabolize in order to perform all its various daily functions.

One of the foundations of healthy digestion is our body’s digestive enzymes.

What Are Digestive Enzymes?

Simply put, digestive enzymes break down the foods we eat into their component nutrients so that the body is able to absorb and metabolize them. Without digestive enzymes, our body wouldn’t get the “good stuff” from the foods we eat.  The minerals, vitamins, and healthy complex carbohydrates our body needs would pass through our system unprocessed, as we would be unable to access and make use of them.

Digestive enzymes break down proteins into amino acids, carbohydrates into simple sugars, and fats into cholesterol and fatty acids. They also release the vitamins, minerals, and other plant and animal compounds into forms which the body can utilize.

Different digestive enzymes break down different types of foods, and are divided into 7 different categories of digestive enzymes:

  • Dairy – lactase
  • Fat – lipase
  • Fiber – cellulase
  • Grains – maltase
  • Protein – protease
  • Starch – amylase
  • Sugar – sucrase

Where do they come from?

Digestive enzymes are produced primarily in the pancreas and small intestines, although the salivary glands and the stomach also produce a proportion of digestive enzymes as well.  They also are produced by the trillions of good bacteria living in harmony inside our digestive tract.

What Causes Digestive Dysfunction?

Maintaining your bodies enzymes is a delicate balance, and sometime our bodies need a little help.  For example, certain foods are harder to digest than others. In addition, certain life activities and dietary choices (like smoking, drinking alcohol, or consuming excessive sugar) can deplete a body’s natural reserve of digestive enzymes. What’s more, as the body ages, it is less able to effectively produce the same quantity and range of digestive enzymes at the same rate.

Other factors that can impair the body’s natural digestive enzyme production and use capabilities include pancreatic problems like acute or chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, or pancreatic cancer, as well as Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and other brush border dysfunctions. Inflammation, such as from allergies or infection, chronic stress, and low stomach acid can also interfere with proper digestive enzyme function.

Cooked and Processed Foods

Another impediment to our proper digestion of the foods we eat is the manner in which we’ve culturally grown accustomed to eating our food, namely cooked. Natural foods contain inherently within them the sufficient dietary enzymes needed to digest them. A mango contains the digestive enzyme to break down that mango, a scoop of buckwheat contains the digestive enzymes to break down that buckwheat. But at temperatures over 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) those enzymes, which are incredibly sensitive to heat, are destroyed. Processing and pasteurizing have similar effects on the inherent digestive enzymes those foods contain. Therefore, unless eating food raw, supplementary digestive enzymes may very likely be necessary to help the body compensate for the lack of natural digestive enzymes killed off by cooking, processing, and pasteurizing.

For these reasons, among others, many people of all ages supplement their body’s natural digestive enzyme production with plant and animal digestive enzymes in dietary supplement form.

Enzyme Therapy?

If you run in the natural health circles, you’re bound to hear the Enzyme Therapy. What exactly is that?  Enzyme Therapy is the process of taking enzyme supplements made from animal and plant enzymes in order to balance metabolism and improve digestive health and function.

Enzyme supplements come in two basic forms, based on their source: plant and animal. Animal enzymes, extracted from the organs of certain animals, like pigs and cows, are used to break down animal proteins and fats, including dairy. Plant enzymes are used to break down plant-based foods, namely fibers, grains, starches, and sugars.

In addition to combatting digestive issues, enzyme therapy is also used to combat inflammation and certain cancers. Other purported benefits of this form of holistic digestive therapy include strengthening the immune system, maintaining proper urinary pH balance, cleansing the colon, purifying the blood, and enhancing mental acuity.

How Do I Know If I Need to Take Digestive Enzyme Supplements?

Common symptoms of digestive distress that may indicate a digestive enzyme deficiency or dysfunction are gas and bloating following meals, feeling full after only eating a small amount, feeling after eating as if you have food sitting undigested in your stomach, bowel movements that consistently float (a rare one, once in a while, is fine), undigested food appearing in your bowel movement, oily residue in the toilet bowl (from undigested fat). Leaky gut syndrome and acid reflux are other common indications that supplementary digestive enzymes may be beneficial.

There are a host of other conditions for which digestive enzyme supplementation might be beneficial. These range from alcoholism to back pain, cancer to chronic fatigue, gastritis to hepatitis, obesity to PMS, food allergies to gout, anemia to hypoglycemia, and stress, to name but a few. If you want to know for certain whether your body is producing sufficient quantities of the right digestive enzymes for your diet, you can ask your doctor to test your stool.

Digestive Enzyme Supplements

Earlier we’d mentioned that plant enzymes are needed to break down plant-based foods and animal-sourced enzymes are needed to break down meats. Luckily, don’t need a laundry-list of separate supplementary digestive enzymes to process each type. Many manufacturers, like doTERRA, produce proprietary blends of whole food based, active digestive enzymes to provide comprehensive digestive support for every facet of a meal, like doTERRA’s Terrazyme blend.

I’m glad to have shared what I know about digestive enzymes and how they’re your body way of processing the nutrition from the foods you eat.  To help your body maintain a healthy store of digestive enzymes, supplements, like those sold by doTERRA can be an invaluable asset to a treatment or recovery plan for numerous diseases and conditions, an essential component of a short-term cleanse, or a mainstay of a more general daily wellness program.

Thanks so much for reading!…Megan

Questions?  Concerns?  Send me a note at: megan@greenscenegal.com

Megan Word

Green Gal Guru

A self-described "Green Gal", Megan is a full-time mommy and passionate blogger in the natural health and green living space. She has been actively preaching to friends and family for years about simple ways to live free of synthetic chemicals, and in harmony with our one and only planet earth.

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