Enzymes act as catalysts— molecules that make reactions happen faster. While there are enzymes that help to build things up, in this article I’ll focus on enzymes that help to break things down, a.k.a. digestive enzymes.
Digestive enzymes are an incredibly important part of our gastrointestinal system. They help to break chemical bonds in foods, transforming large molecules into smaller molecules we can easily absorb. That’s what digestion means— breaking down into smaller parts.
Each enzyme in our bodies is made to fit like a lock and key with its particular substrate; the “substrate” being the thing the enzyme reacts with and transforms.
In the above picture, you can imagine that the yellow substrate is the complex carbohydrate molecule sucrose, in which case the green enzyme would be called sucrase. The blue and red products at the end of this particular reaction would be glucose and fructose molecules, because those are the two simpler sugar molecules that sucrose is made from— and the enzyme sucrase helped to break the bond that held them together.
Note: All enzymes end with the suffix “-ase.” For instance, the enzyme that helps break down lactose is called lactase. For peptides, it’s peptidase; for lipids, it’s lipase; etc.
We have hydrochloric acid in our stomachs to help start the digestion of large proteins, but that just gets the ball rolling. Enzymes are required to break proteins down fully into amino acids, which happens lower down in the small intestine. The breakdown of fats and carbohydrates also happens there. Although we do have some enzymes in our saliva to help kick start the digestion of carbohydrates, the vast majority of digestive enzymes are released into the small intestine by the pancreas, or are created within the small intestine itself.
Remember I said enzymes are catalysts that make reactions happen faster? It’s so important that digestion works efficiently and rapidly to make sure you’re able to absorb all the nutrients out of your food in the 6-8 hours it will be in the stomach and small intestine, before it enters the colon where nutrients are no longer absorbed.
So what does it look like when digestive enzymes are deficient or inefficient? We can each experience this differently but often it results in undigested food remaining in passed stools, or symptoms like indigestion, reflux, abdominal bloating, gas, and belching.
There are dietary and lifestyle factors that impact enzyme production and action that you’ll want to be aware of.
First, what hurts: chronic stress (inhibits enzyme production), deficiency of vitamin and mineral cofactors (lowers enzyme production and activity), pancreatic disease (inhibits enzyme production), and small intestinal disorders such as Celiac disease, IBS, or dysbiosis (inhibit enzyme production).
Next, what helps: chewing food thoroughly (in order to expose more surface area to the action of enzymes), reducing overall stress and only eating when calm (to allow the body to move into or “Rest and Digest” mode – the opposite of Fight or Flight), taking a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement, and keeping the gut free from inflammation.
You may benefit from taking a digestive enzyme supplement with meals to help aid absorption of nutrients and prevent symptoms of indigestion, especially when you can’t avoid eating foods that you know don’t agree with you.
“Oh, do you mean probiotics?” This is a question I get quite often when talking about digestive enzymes, so don’t feel bad if you’ve been confused in this way. Enzymes and probiotics are entirely different things, but they both play important roles in making our digestion and absorption work well. In fact, enzyme production relies in part on having a robust population of healthy gut microbes, including bacteria and yeasts. For this, you may also need to take a medical grade probiotic supplement.
If you have any questions or need specific guidance on supplements, I’m here to help!
Image credit: http://giantfinder.com/2014/05/common-sense-and-experience-in-marketing
By Dr. Lauri Brouwer, NMD
Learn more about Dr. Brouwer here