Everyone is focused on what they eat, but what about how they digest?
People have a general idea of what digestive enzymes are, but not many have considered the scope of their importance and the role they play for overall health.
What They Are and What They Do
Digestion doesn’t just take place in your stomach. The pancreas produces a large portion of your digestive enzymes, as do the small intestine, stomach lining, liver, and salivary glands[i] (digestion begins in the mouth, after all). But these enzymes do not digest food -they digest nutrients.
Digestive enzymes are catalysts responsible for breaking down food to extract nutrients. They are then converted to:
Amino acids from proteins
Fatty acids and cholesterol from fats
Simple and complex sugars from carbohydrates
And other vitamins, minerals, and compounds.[ii]
This process is by no means a simple input-output. Dozens of different enzymes work together along the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to break down macronutrients from the foods you eat. These nutrients are then sent through the bloodstream to the liver and then are absorbed into the lymphatic system, which distributes them to tissues, organs, and muscles.[iii]
As you can imagine, this complex exchange is responsible for the body’s access to fuel. But it doesn’t end there. Digestive enzymes affect factors for daily life that are not often considered.
You can eat all the healthy food in the world, but if you can’t absorb it, not even the healthiest of diets will do any good. However, our bodies can only digest what it’s given. High-fiber foods such as fruits and vegetables contain enzymes of their own that work with digestive enzymes to break down foods faster and allow your body to access nutrients quickly for cell reparation and growth.[iv]
Luckily, enzyme production is versatile and can be tailored to the composition of food consumed. However, if a diet doesn’t include this pairing of essential enzymes, or if the body is unable to produce enough enzymes to promote healthy digestion and diverse microbial life[v], you run the risk of malnutrition. This could lead to symptoms such as:
Lackluster hair, skin, and nails
To this end, maintaining a healthy diet is imperative to support the intricate process of enzyme production.
Immune System Support
Studies have been cited that the autoimmune system, which protects us from pathogens and harmful components in the environment, may owe its efficiency to digestive enzymes.[vii] As humans have evolved, enzyme production followed suit with microbial gut flora producing various enzymes to respond to different pathological and environmental threats. This line of defense allows the body to recognize and eliminate many dangers before they can infect the rest of the body.
In a study performed on rats, it was reported that aging affects the ability of the pancreas to produce enzymes. The rats were fed altered diets and the results showed a higher adaptability in enzyme excretion in the younger rats than in the older ones. [viii]
As we age, our ability to adapt to changes in diet and nutrient absorption slows. In some, this can lead to c