You know that a balanced diet is key to good health, but did you know it wouldn’t do you much good if it weren’t for digestive enzymes? Digestive enzymes, made by your salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, and lower intestine, are responsible for breaking down the macronutrients from the food you eat (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) into smaller nutrients that can be transported around and absorbed by your body. Our bodies produce these enzymes before and after a meal, starting when we first smell and taste food, then again as it moves through the GI tract.
Although our bodies make these enzymes, many of us may not have enough. Whether it’s due to a pancreatic ailment, lowered stomach acid levels that occur as we age, or as a result of chemical exposure in our day-to-day life, it’s possible to raise your enzyme levels naturally through your diet, or when necessary, through a high-quality, targeted supplement. Even if you’re in good health, more digestive enzymes can help keep you regular, alleviate occasional gas and bloating, process high-fat or high-protein meals, and even boost your energy levels.
The three primary digestive enzymes—amylase, lipase, and proteases—break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, respectively. Other important enzymes include:
· Alpha-galactosidase, which breaks down the carbohydrates in beans, peas, and cruciferous veggies into easily-digested simple sugars. Supplementing with this enzyme can help prevent flatulence, bloating, and stomach pain when eating beans, certain grains, and a number of difficult-to-digest veggies.
· Cellulase helps your body break down cellulose found in plant cell walls. Without cellulase, you’d be unable to digest fruits and vegetables!
· Invertase, also known as sucrase, turns sucrose into fructose and glucose, sugars that are more easily absorbed by the body. It’s also a powerful antioxidant, antiseptic, and immune booster.
· Lactase helps the body digest the lactose (sugar) in dairy products, and is the active ingredient in Lactaid. A lactase supplement can help you digest dairy if you’re lactose intolerant.
· Maltase is responsible for breaking down malt sugars into glucose, and in so doing, eases the digestive burden on the pancreas and small intestine. Without maltase, our digestive system would not run smoothly. Having enough maltase in your body may calm the gut and prevent chronic diarrhea and other digestive complaints.
· Phytase helps your body digest the phytic acid found in seeds, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. As phytic acid can prevent the absorption of minerals like calcium, iron, and zinc, phytase can help restore levels or prevent deficiencies from occurring.
· Proteases, as mentioned above, help break down proteins. They’re also known as peptidases, proteolytic enzymes, or proteinases, and they’re also responsible for cell division, immune function, and blood clotting. Proteases are secreted by the stomach and pancreas, and some important ones include pepsin, trypsin, chymotrypsin, and carboxypeptidases A and B.
TOP FOOD SOURCES
To boost or maintain healthy digestive enzyme levels, the best way for most healthy people is through diet. Several foods—including a number of fruits—are bountiful, natural sources of specific enzymes. They include:
Pineapples, which are rich in digestive enzymes called bromelain that assist in breaking down proteins into amino acids. As a supplement, bromelain helps your body well beyond digestion, as it also reduces pain and swelling after injury or surgery, and can even help ease muscle soreness after a tough workout.
Papayas contain papain, which like bromelain, breaks proteins down into amino acids. Papaya enzyme supplements may help with some IBS problems and is a good natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Papaya should be consumed ripe and raw, as cooking it can destroy the papain enzyme.
Bananas are rich in maltase and amylase, and are also an excellent source of dietary fiber, making them a digestive health powerhouse. They’re most potent when ripe, so choose a yellow banana to get the most benefit.
Kiwis contain actinidin, another digestive enzyme that aids in protein breakdown and absorption. Studies show that eating kiwi with a high-protein meal can ease the stomach pain, bloating, and/or constipation too much protein can cause. Kiwis are also an excellent source of vitamin C, and their edible skin is a great source of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Raw Honey, which hasn’t been exposed to enzyme-destroying heat, is chock full of digestive enzymes including amylase, diastase, invertase, and protease. Avocados, themselves rich in good fat, are also an excellent source of lipase, the enzyme that helps the body process fat. Although your body makes its own lipase, eating avocados or taking a lipase supplement can help you better digest a high-fat meal.
Ginger is a well-known anti-inflammatory, natural nausea cure, and immunity booster, but did you know it’s great for gut health, too? This is because it contains the protease zingibain, which may help move food faster through the GI tract, as well as potentially help the body produce more of its own digestive enzymes. Kefir is a fermented dairy beverage made by adding yeast and lactic and acetic acids to milk. Not only is kefir a probiotic food and rich in digestive enzymes such as lipase, proteases, and lactase, research shows that kefir can actually improve lactose digestion in the lactose intolerant. Kimchi, another probiotic powerhouse made with salted and fermented veggies and spices, is a flavorful source of digestive enzymes due to Bacillus bacteria which helps produce vital amylase, lipase, and proteases. Miso, made by fermenting soybeans with koji, a type of fungus rich in digestive enzymes, has been shown to reduce symptoms in those who suffer from irritable bowel disease (IBD). It’s also another great probiotic food that can further bolster a healthy gut.
DIGESTIVE ENZYME SUPPLEMENTS
There are number of proven digestive supplements (such as supplemental lactase and alpha-galactosidase). If you’re concerned that you’re not getting enough digestive support through food alone, contact me for help troubleshooting your digestive distress. Together, we can determine what kinds of digestive enzymes you need and how best to get them.