Last Updated on March 21, 2021
We may be aware enough about our overall physical well-being, but how much do we really know about gut health?
Out of the main organ systems of the body, the digestive system is seemingly the one that often goes unnoticed. Many don’t seem to put enough focus on how our stomachs and intestines work, much less all the other components like digestive enzymes.
If you happen to be in search of more information about digestive enzymes, fret not. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to provide you with plenty of valuable information through this article, so read on.
What exactly are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes help smoothen the process of breaking down food and liquid into protein, vitamins, and carbohydrates. Plant enzymes consist of four main types: proteases, lipases, amylases, and cellulases.
Proteases are responsible for digesting protein into amino acids, while lipases break fat apart to turn them into fatty acids. Amylases, on the other hand, turn carbohydrates into simple sugars, while cellulases help digest fiber found in vegetables, fruits, and grains.
Other enzymes include glucoamylase and invertase for sugar digestion; lactase, which breaks down the sugar in milk; and peptidase, which takes care of gluten.
How do enzymes work?
Middle school science may have familiarized you with the concept of enzymes, but how do enzymes actually work? The idea is simple in theory, but there are many complexities at work, as far as the actual process goes.
As you may know, the process of digestion begins as we chew our food. At this stage, enzymes are automatically released through the saliva, with the help of gastrointestinal fluids that deal with the nutrients that enter the body.
In turn, our digestive system builds certain enzymes that aid in drawing in specific food types, whether they are significant sources of protein, carbohydrates, or fat.
What causes enzyme deficiency?
An insufficient amount of these enzymes causes the improper breakdown of food, which may result in adverse effects like lactose intolerance, pancreatic problems, and other digestive disorders.
At worst, conditions like increased intestinal permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut syndrome, may also occur and may become irreparable if left untreated.
Many factors contribute to enzyme deficiency, but according to most experts, the biggest one is part of our daily lives: stress. Seattle-based autoimmune specialist and naturopathic doctor Tim Gerstmar describes it as the “single biggest dysfunction” that compromises digestive health.
Dr. Gerstmar points out that when the body undergoes a tremendous amount of stress, it automatically goes on fight-or-flight mode and subsequently decreases the energy needed for digestion.
As you may imagine, it can only worsen in the event of chronic stress, which may disrupt the entire process altogether.
Symptoms of enzyme deficiency may range from bloating, diarrhea, and constipation to unhealthier conditions like malnutrition and even involuntary weight loss.
How do digestive enzymes benefit the body?
Now that you know how enzymes work and what the lack of them can do to the human body, we then take a look at its benefits. Interestingly enough, many of these go beyond digestive health.
Alleviates joint problems
Whenever the body undergoes stressful situations, inflammations may occur. In this particular case, it is the proteases or proteolytic enzymes that do the work by moderating these inflammations. One way it does so is by decreasing the swelling in mucous membranes, which ultimately relieves any pain in the bones and joints.
And in case of any injuries, these proteolytic enzymes also break down plasma proteins, reducing any swelling that may be present.
Promotes cardiovascular health
While there’s nothing wrong with consuming fat, too much of it can be hazardous, particularly to our cardiovascular health. The excess fat causes a build-up in the body, which may lead to heart disease.
This is where the enzyme lipase comes in, as it helps digest these fat particles effectively. It ultimately helps prevent any build-up in the blood vessels that can easily cause a heart attack or stroke.
Promotes skin health
Acne and common skin problems are usually endured by teenagers. However, there are those who are stricken with adult acne, which can be a pain to deal with.
Digestive enzymes help absorb nutrients like Vitamins A, C, E, and zinc, all of which play a role in nurturing the skin. And when food is properly digested, the absorption of such nutrients and vitamins become a lot more efficient.
Boosts the immune system
The body’s immune system also benefits significantly from digestive enzymes, and it undergoes the same process as promoting skin health. Similarly, great digestion aids in the proper intake of nutrients.
These enzymes also decrease stress in the digestive system, creating a suitable environment for the immune system to work more effectively.
Helps manage neuro-developmental disorders in children
The common perception about neuro-developmental disorders like ADHD in children is that they are mainly a behavioral problem. The reality, however, is that digestive health plays a significant role.
Improper digestion may lead to disorders like leaky gut syndrome, which then activates an immune response in both the brain and body. But with the help of digestive enzymes, all of these can be regulated.
What are good sources of digestive enzymes?
Some supplements are good sources of digestive enzymes, all of which can be purchased over-the-counter in drugstores. But if you choose to go the more natural route, here are some great examples.
Apart from being tasty fruits to snack on or include in desserts or breakfast foods, bananas have a ton of health benefits. In terms of digestive enzymes, they are rich in both amylases and glucosidases, both of which are responsible for breaking down starch and other complex carbohydrates.
These enzymes are at their peak during a banana’s ripest stage, which is when it turns from green to yellow. And as a bonus, bananas also provide the sufficient dietary fiber you’ll need for a healthy gut.
A favorite in many tropical regions in the world, the pineapple is a staple in Hawaiian dishes because of its sweet, tangy taste. But apart from the flavor factor, it is also a healthy source of bromelain, a type of protease that digests protein into amino acids.
These are particularly helpful in alleviating discomfort among people who suffer from protein indigestion.
We all hear that avocados are an excellent source of healthy fats, but they also contain the same enzyme that breaks down fat into tinier molecules. This fruit is rich in lipase, which is also an effective digestive aid.
The pancreas already produces lipase, but adding the enzyme to a high-fat diet can help balance things out.
The tropics are indeed bountiful with healthy fruits, papayas being one of them. Like pineapples, papayas contain proteases, which help break down protein particles into a more viable form.
Specifically, papayas are abundant in the protease called papain, which is strong enough for digestion that it is also used as a meat tenderizer.
If you are a fan of Korean cuisine, you would be very familiar with the red pile of leafy vegetables served on the side of every meal. This, of course, is kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish that is often served with a generous amount of spicy flavors.
What makes Kimchi a rich source of enzymes is the presence of the bacteria called bacillus, which produces three of the four main plant enzymes: proteases (to break down protein), amylases (to digest carbs), and lipases (to digest fat).
People in the tropics are fortunate enough to have these fruits easily at their disposal. With all of its tastiness aside, mangoes are actually a good source of amylases.
As with bananas, the enzyme is at its most active state when the fruit is ripe. You don’t only get to enjoy its flavor, you get to reap its health benefits as well.
In terms of fruits and useful digestive aids, the kiwi fruit is usually at the top of the list. It is abundant in actinidain, a protease for protein digestion. And like the papain in papayas, it is also an enzyme used to tenderize tough game meat.
Actual studies done on rats have shown that actinidain does help in improving the digestion of gluten, soy protein isolates, and even beef.
The truth about digestive enzymes
Gut health plays a much more prominent role in our overall well-being than many of us may have imagined, and an imbalance of any kind may lead to a chain reaction of health issues. Digestive enzymes are there to keep the entire system working as fluidly as possible.
So whether you choose to go for over-the-counter supplements or the more natural, delicious resources mentioned above, be sure to load yourself up with them. Your body will thank you in the long run, as you will enable yourself to live a healthier and more fruitful life.