What are digestive enzymes, and why are they so important?We eat food, but our digestive system doesn’t absorb food, it absorbs nutrients. Food has to be broken down from things like steak and broccoli into its nutrient pieces: amino acids (from proteins), fatty acids and cholesterol (from fats), and simple sugars (from carbohydrates), as well as vitamins, minerals, and a variety of other plant and animal compounds. Digestive enzymes, primarily produced* in the pancreas and small intestine, break down our food into nutrients so that our bodies can absorb them.
*They’re also made in saliva glands and stomach, but we’re not going to focus on those here.
If we don’t have enough digestive enzymes, we can’t break down our food—which means even though we’re eating well, we aren’t absorbing all that good nutrition.
What would cause digestive enzymes to stop working correctly in the body?First, diseases may prevent proper digestive enzyme production.
- Pancreatic problems, including cystic fibrosis, pancreatic cancer, and acute or chronic pancreatitis.
- Brush border dysfunction, the most severe is long standing Celiac disease, where the brush border is flattened or destroyed. Other diseases like Crohn’s can also cause severe problems.
- Low-grade inflammation in the digestive tract (such as that caused by “food allergies,” intestinal permeability, dysbiosis, parasitic infection, etc.) can lead to deficiencies in digestive enzymes.
- Aging has been associated with decreased digestive function, though I personally wonder if this is a result of aging, or aging badly.
- Low stomach acid—we’ll talk about this more in a future article, but if you have low stomach acid, it’s likely that you won’t have adequate digestive enzymes either.
- Chronic stress. This is the most common reason for digestive enzyme problems. Our body has two modes: sympathetic “fight or flight,” and parasympathetic “rest and digest.” When we’re in “fight or flight” mode, digestive is given a very low priority, which means digestive function (including digestive enzyme output) is dialed down. Chronic stress= constant “fight of flight” mode = impaired digestive enzyme output.
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How do we correct a digestive enzyme deficiency?
First, a Whole30 or a
Paleo-style diet can help to restore normal digestive function,
including digestive enzymes. Dietary interventions work by reducing
inflammation in the body and the digestive tract, improving nutrient
deficiencies, removing enzyme inhibitors by taking out things like
grains and legumes, and fixing gut bacteria.
However, just because you eat Good Food doesn’t automatically mean your digestion will be healthy. In my previous article, I talked about gut bacteria, which may not be in perfect balance with a Paleo diet alone. Improper digestion is another issue that diet alone may not solve.
Managing chronic stress is vitally important to restoring healthy digestive function. Most of us are cramming food in our faces at our desks or while we’re on the go, then we’re off to do the next thing on our list. We live most of our lives in sympathetic mode—and aren’t giving a high priority to properly digesting our food. When we sit down to eat food, we should switch into a parasympathetic mode, and ideally stay in parasympathetic mode for a while afterwards. Think long European meals, followed by a siesta. (Refer to pages 182-185 in It Starts With Food for more specifics.)
Finally, after implementing these healthy dietary and lifestyle practices, digestive enzyme supplementation may be necessary to help your body properly break down your food.
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