The gnawing, unrelenting discomfort and bloating of indigestion. Most have felt it, whether brought on by spicy food, greasy meals, alcohol or just simply overeating. Or maybe it's pain after eating. Food comes in, and the stomach begins to cramp, leaving you doubled over in pain. The occasional occurrence will usually resolve on its own, but if it's becoming chronic, you’re likely frequenting the pharmacy shelf with little relief. So you head to the natural food aisle or health food store. Digestive enzymes promise to fix everything from bloating to flatulence to heartburn relief. However, understanding how digestive enzymes work helps narrow down when to use them, and when to avoid wasting your dollars.
What are digestive enzymes? Digestive enzymes break down the nutrients from the foods we eat into their smaller components, in order to allow for their absorption by the body through the small intestinal lining. Think of food as a string of pearls, and enzymes as the scissors that chop up that string into individual pearls, which can then be absorbed by the body. Humans produce enzymes, but we also obtain them from some of the foods we eat. The human body secretes enzymes from the main areas of digestion: the mouth, the stomach, the small intestine, and the pancreas (the largest producer). There are several different types of digestive enzymes, each with its own role in digesting certain types of foods. Among these enzymes are:
Proteases and peptidases: help break down proteins
Lipase: breaks down fats
Nuclease: breaks down nucleic acids
Amylase: breaks down carbohydrates
In some instances, the production of these enzymes declines or stops altogether. The most common example of this would be lactose – our body slows or stops the production of the lactase enzyme, and as a result, we cannot break down and absorb the lactose sugar. Branch chain sugars ending up in our colon can lead to bacterial fermentation and gas, bloating, and sometimes stool changes. Enzyme deficiencies can slow the rate of digestion, resulting in food breaking down slower and nutrients not being absorbed. The symptoms that results are what are commonly known as “indigestion”. When to use them Whether our bodies are not producing enough enzymes due to age or disorder, supplementing our diets with enzymes may provide relief for digestive discomfort. Various disorders that benefit most significantly include cystic fibrosis, pancreatitis, and pancreatic cancer. Furthermore, digestive enzyme deficiencies, like lactase deficiency, would benefit from taking lactase-containing enzymes to aid the proper breakdown of lactose, when consumed. Taking an alpha-galactosidase enzyme can also reduce the discomfort felt from eating beans or complex carbohydrates. However, little evidence supports the use of enzymes for other common concerns like irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux/heartburn. Often, the root cause of these concerns is not enzyme deficiencies, and so supplementing digestive enzymes provide little relief, despite the label claims. It's also important to remember that not all enzymes are made equally. Some enzymes are sourced from plants, while others may come from animal sources. Ensure to read the label, and check that the enzyme required for your needs is found on the label. Sourcing enzymes naturally Fortunately, many of the foods we eat already contain the supplements we need. Adding these foods, among others, to your diet can help provide the relief you need naturally:
Pineapple: contains digestive enzymes called bromelain, which is part of a protease group of enzymes that help our bodies digest proteins. Sometimes pineapple can prove to be acidic for people with sensitive stomachs. Fortunately, bromelain is available as a dietary supplement but does have anti-platelet properties so is not recommended for individuals taking a blood thinner.
Papaya: not only contains protease to help digest proteins but also papain. Papain helps break down proteins into amino acids. It’s important to make sure papaya is ripe and uncooked when you eat it. Papain is also available as a supplement and has been shown to relieve symptoms associated with IBS.
Mango: contains amylase, which helps break down carbs into sugars.
Honey: packs a power punch of helpful enzymes including diastases, amylases, invertases, and proteases. In addition to the enzymatic benefits, raw honey can soothe upset stomachs, and provide relief from heartburn and indigestion.
Banana: contains amylases and glucosidases — both of which help break down starch into digestible sugars. Bananas are also a great source of dietary fibre, which can aid digestive health.
Avocado: contains lipase, which helps break down fat molecules into glycerol and smaller fatty acids. The pancreas produces lipase on its own, but a lipase supplement can ease digestion — especially after a high-fat meal.
Other enzyme-packed foods include kefir, ginger, kiwifruit, miso, kimchi, and sauerkraut. Adding some or all of these foods to your diet can improve your digestive health and relieve symptoms of everyday discomfort. Should you require a higher concentration of enzymes beyond that found in food, talk to your naturopath to find out if and what digestive enzyme supplement may be best for you. If you would like more information about managing your digestive health or naturopathic medicinal treatments, please feel free to contact Dr. Courtney Holmberg, ND at 647-351-7282 to schedule an appointment today.