Functions Of Digestive Enzymes

by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP

Eating a healthy well-balanced diet is the foundation for our optimal health. In the fast paced world we live in, it can be difficult to prepare one healthy meal – let alone three of them a day. The healthier the foods are that we eat, the easier it will be for our bodies to digest them and extract the nutrients it needs for us to maintain optimal health. Yet if we skip meals or eat unhealthy meals – an occasional splurge is to be expected – we need to know that in order for our body to work for us, it needs our help. The digestive tract is a complex system and sometimes regardless of what we eat, it needs some help. This article is meant to help you understand how the digestive system works, how specific digestive enzymes work, and what we can do if we find ourselves having problems with our digestive system.

When we put food in our mouths, our digestive track starts the miraculous process of transforming that food into usable nutrients, uniting a combination of biochemical players whose job it is to carry out the task. Very importantly, the digestive enzymes play a substantial role in the digestive process, as the all-important “cleavers” that turn big food molecules into smaller ones and allow us to absorb vital nutrients that our bodies need to function properly. Without these enzymes, much can go wrong.

Just as each of the nutrients in the food, what we eat and the beverages we drink have the important job of regulating our daily activities – which include providing an ample amount of energy, creating new body tissues, and cleansing our system of toxins and free radicals that can make us sick. Each member of the digestive tract team has a specific purpose.

If one member of the chemical team is not able to do its job correctly, it can throw off the whole digestive system – causing troubling symptoms such as bloating, gas, nausea or diarrhea, and a sense of constant fullness, thereby making it harder to eat regular meals. If the symptoms continue, it could lead to a more chronic condition such as acid reflux, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, IBD diverticulosis or Crohn’s disease.

In other digestive health articles we describe the leading role of hydrochloric acid in our stomachs, as well as the protective role of the very important crucial role of the micro flora in our guts. So let’s take a closer look at how and where the different types of digestive enzymes, sometimes called the “sparks of life,” do their job so you can see if digestive enzyme supplements are necessary and can benefit your digestive health.

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What are the specific functions of digestive enzymes?

Each digestive enzyme works best in a specific environment, and each section of the digestive tract offers that unique environment so that the enzymes can work in harmony to carry out their jobs, which result in a healthy digestive system. The following list describes a brief overview for what, in reality, is a very complex process of how the digestive tract and digestive enzymes work.

  • The mouth. As soon as we eat, the salivary amylase in the mouth starts the digestive process by breaking down bigger starch molecules (polysaccharides) into smaller ones, called maltose and dextrin.
  • The stomach. As food moves through the digestive tract to the stomach, the gastric juices that are made up of hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen, are then secreted by the parietal and chief glands in the stomach’s lining. The job of hydrochloric acid in the stomach is to dissolve the food, kill unwanted and sometimes harmful microorganisms, and convert the pepsinogen into the stomach enzyme called pepsin. This is important to remember as hydrochloric acid is the culprit for acid reflux. Pepsin is a proteolytic (protein-breaking) enzyme, and it’s job is to help unwind and breakdown molecules of protein into smaller subcomponents. The majority of proteins are big molecules made up of units called amino acids. Oftentimes amino acids are referred to as the “building blocks of life.” Pepsin depends on the acidic environment of the stomach, which is why it has to do the majority of it’s work there.
  • The small intestine. From the stomach, the partially broken down food gets pushed into the upper section of the small intestine, called the duodenum. At this stage of the digestive process, only a few of the proteins and carbohydrates have been broken down, while all of the fats that were consumed remain fully intact. This is where the pancreatic enzymes have to work their magic. The pancreatic enzymes trypsin and chymotrypsin digest additional members of the protein family, and function best in the more alkaline environment that the small intestine provides. The other pancreatic enzymes include pancreatic amylase, which continues breaking down starches into maltose, and lipase, which begins to digest fats into glycerol and fatty acids. In our practice, a lack of these particular enzymes can contribute greatly to increased bloating and difficulty digesting foods, especially fats. Peristalsis, or the wave-like action of the smooth muscles of digestion, keeps this whole process moving along, and from here, the food moves down the section of the small intestine called the jejunum, where most of the absorption takes place.
  • The large intestine. What remains of our food then proceeds to move into the large intestine, also called the colon. Several important functions take place here, such as the absorption of water and sodium, as well as the ongoing manufacturing and absorption of micronutrients with the help of the intestinal flora. The remainder of food that is left is then turned into stool and eventually exits the body via the rectum. This complex process can have many things that can go wrong, so it is easy to understand that much can also be done to improve the function of the digestive system as well.

By now, all the digestive enzymes have had their moment in the digestive limelight. Therefore, it is easier to see how each part of the digestive process is equally important, from chewing our food to the process of micronutrient uptake. It would make sense that we would take our time while eating instead of rushing through meals on the go or skipping meals and replacing them with a quick snack that is lacking in nutrition. If or when something goes wrong, your body will let you know by displaying one or more of the following symptoms: bloating, gas, cramping or possibly vomiting, heartburn, constipation, having a sense of fullness all the time and diarrhea to name just a few. If you suffer from these symptoms on a regular basis, there are some digestive enzyme supplements we have found helpful to act as a bridge until you find the cause of the deeper issue, which we don’t advise you put off. Digestive enzymes are great to help your digestive problems – however, if there is a more serious problem at work, it needs to be treated.

Are digestive enzymes safe to take?  Which are the best digestive enzymes?

Certain enzymes should not be used by people with a history of certain digestive disorders, such as peptic ulcers. We strongly recommend that you work with your healthcare practitioner to find the best solution for your unique situation. However, there are a few safe exceptions, such as papain and lactase, as mentioned below. In addition, it is important to remember that healthy digestion starts with healthy eating habits.

Betaine HCl is a combination digestive aid comprised of betaine, a vitamin-like substance, and hydrochloric acid. The digestive enzyme pepsin is often included in betaine HCl products. This digestive enzyme can be useful in treating patients with digestive issues such as acid reflux (GERD) — particularly those who have been found to have hypochlorhydria, a condition where the stomach does not produce enough acid. Betaine HCl is occasionally prescribed for patients with other forms of indigestion such as heartburn and gas, as well as rosacea, asthma, yeast, allergies and sensitivities. Subsequently, healthy digestion depends on your stomach’s ability to dissolve large chunks of food and a highly acidic environment is necessary for this process to take place. The high acid content of betaine HCl can cause irritation of the stomach, and should only be taken during the middle of a meal That means eat a quarter to half of your meal then stop and take the supplement and finish your meal. Because this digestive enzyme can significantly change the pH in the stomach, we recommend betaine HCl be used only under the guidance of an experienced healthcare practitioner.

Multi-enzyme products (supplements) contain a wide spectrum of enzymatic ingredients; some of them support the action in the stomach while others work to boost the enzymatic action that happens further down the digestive tract. Listed below is an alphabetical list of just some of the several enzymes that these products can contain:

  •  Alpha-galactosidase
  •  Amylase
  •  Bromelain
  •  Cellulase
  •  Glucoamylase
  •  Hemicellulase
  •  Invertase [Sucrase]
  •  Lactase
  •  Lipase
  •  Maltase
  •  Papain
  •  Peptidase
  •  Protease
  •  Phytase

For the best results, consult a holistic healthcare provider for support with choosing a complete digestive enzyme product. One we regularly recommend to our patients at the clinic is Plantzyme by Metagenics. Other companies, such as Thorne, Standard Process and Zymogen, also have products that are very effective, but you can also get good results from other products that are found in any health food store near you. You also always have the option to purchase products containing individual enzymes. Remember, each of these enzymes can target certain bonds in proteins, sugars, and other macromolecules to break them into their components. For example, lactose, a milk sugar, is poorly tolerated or not tolerated at all by many people all over the world.

People who suffer from lactose-intolerance, and occasionally want to be able to eat or drink dairy products, can choose to supplement their daily diets with lactase tablets or foods that include lactase. This is a safe and effective way to allow their digestive system to assimilate this milk sugar into it’s usable components. This can help prevent the bloating and discomfort afterward that they would otherwise experience, while allowing them to enjoy dairy products!

Pregnant women, who find themselves feeling nauseous upon waking in the morning or after eating a meal, may discover that taking a mild digestive enzyme such as papain (a proteolytic enzyme extracted from papaya) can sometimes help suppress the nausea for these women. Papain has also been found to sometimes help to settle the stomach when motion sickness is the cause. Isn’t it wonderful that something as safe and simple as papaya enzyme can solve these common problems? Some women find that using ginger will greatly help to relieve these symptoms as well.

Consult your healthcare provider for guidance in choosing an individual digestion enzyme best suited to fit your specific needs. Understand though, that it takes a special practitioner, fluent in this type of medicine, to know and understand how important enzymes can be with the entire digestive process. Having a basic understanding of the digestive process is very important in understanding how our day-to-day choices can impact our overall health. If you suffer from digestive problems, the information provided in this article can help you talk to your healthcare provider about using digestive enzyme supplements to assist you as you work to find the root cause of your digestive problems. It is a wonderful place to start to see if things improve.

In reality, the digestion process is a much, much more complicated process than we can cover within in the scope of this article. What is really important to remember, as we continue our fast paced life – is to slow down. You can give your digestive team its best shot by chewing your food carefully and for longer than 5 seconds. This will also allow you to fully enjoy your food, and it will allow your body to break it down into digestible components. When you respect the role of your digestive enzymes, you are honoring yourself with the gift of full nourishment, which leads to an overall sense of well-being.

Having to suffer with a digestive disorder can disrupt our entire life. A digestive disorder can make us feel anxious about going out in public – never knowing when we may have to use the restroom, always looking to see where the restroom is and mentally estimating how long it would take to reach it if need be. It is disheartening to pull our favorite dress or suit out of the closet to find that we are so bloated we will not be able to wear it to a special event. The fear of embarrassing ourselves, spouses/partner and child at a school function because of the gas – especially if it is expelled in an unflattering way.

Digestive problems can cause as many emotional disturbances in our life as the physical ones can. Oftentimes people who are not plagued by digestive problems do not understand why we may pass gas in public, or accidentally bump into someone in a mad dash to the restroom. These events can cause us to miss out on a lot of great things in life – but they don’t have to. With the proper care and support from our healthcare practitioner and a commitment to ourselves – we can lead normal, happy and healthy lives.

For more information, browse all of our articles on digestion and GI health.