What you will learn in this article:
- Enzymes help promote the occurrence of a chemical reaction, but they themselves are not affected in the process
- Digestive enzymes break down larger molecules into smaller molecules so that they are easier for the body to absorb. You are what you absorb. (Not just what you eat).
- Discover the many causes of low digestive enzymes
- Signs you may have insufficient enzymes
- There are many types of digestive enzymes, most of which are secreted in the mouth, the pancreas or the small intestine.
- Importance of sufficient stomach acid to produce enzymes
- What product I use and recommend
When I was in private practice, a few key changes moved the needle for my clients. The Elimination Diet (I explain this diet in the free online workshop called How to Use Food to Rebalance Your Hormones), improving stomach acid, and adding enzymes were the holy trio. These steps would put my clients on a fast track to healing which was encouraging for them and me.
Many of my clients saw major health changes in a matter of days when adding digestive enzymes. The main improvements were: feeling lighter, having more energy and mental clarity, having less gas and constipation, better sleep (how surprising, right?!) and losing weight. When they took the enzymes for more than a few weeks, many came back saying that they could now tolerate foods they were previously sensitive to (I’m not talking about allergic reactions but an IgG food intolerance).
The benefits of digestive enzymes are significant, so let’s dive right in.
What are digestive enzymes?
Think of enzymes as catalysts – they help promote the occurrence of a chemical reaction, but they themselves are not affected in the process. They can speed up chemical reactions in the body by 100 million to 10 billion times.
Enzymes occur throughout the body and are produced by specialized cells and glands.
Enzyme names usually end in -ase and are named after the substance they break down or the type of chemical reactions they work on. For example, proteases break down proteins, lipase breaks down fats (lipids) and oxidases add oxygen.
Systemic versus digestive enzymes
Systemic enzymes are produced in cells throughout the body to help promote detoxification, defense, and repair. They generally help the body stay in good working order. When there aren’t enough of these systemic enzymes to keep up with assaults on the body, we end up with inflammation and dysfunction. Taking systemic enzymes in the form of supplements like serrapeptase, nattokinase, or other systemic enzymes can boost the body’s ability to heal itself.
Digestive enzymes specifically help with digestion. They are produced in several locations along our digestive tract: in the mouth (via saliva glands), in the stomach, and in the small intestine. The pancreas also secretes enzymes to aid in digestion.
Digestive enzymes break down larger molecules into smaller molecules so that they are easier for the body to absorb. For example, a protein molecule is broken down into amino acids, carbohydrates are broken down into monosaccharides (smaller sugars), and fats are broken down into free fatty acids.
Why digestive enzymes are so important to our hormones and health
Digestive enzymes are absolutely vital for recovering or maintaining our health. After all, if you can’t break down food properly, you aren’t going to absorb the nutrients well. You may be eating nutrient-dense, whole foods, but you’re not getting all the benefits from them. You’re eating well, but you’re nutrient deficient. This is why the latest nutritional mantra is: You are what you absorb. (Not just what you eat).
And when you become nutrient-deficient, your health spins out of control quickly. When you become deficient in key vitamins and minerals, the systems of the body starts to go out of balance. And this includes the endocrine system; i.e., your hormones.
The thyroid is dependent on certain amino acids like tyrosine and minerals like selenium and zinc. Estrogen balance requires vitamin B6 and a combination of B6, B12, and Folate are needed for healthy cell signaling and function, including that of breast and cervical cells. Your adrenals also need B vitamins, fatty acids, minerals like magnesium, and amino acids like tyrosine to function optimally. Testosterone is dependent on zinc and the fat-soluble vitamin (and hormone), vitamin D.
Hormone imbalance may also be due, in part, to fat malabsorption. Without proper levels of enzymes like lipase, you’re not going to break down fats very well. Lipase is needed to digest lipids. And lipids are the building blocks for producing steroid hormones; e.g. pregnenolone, progesterone, cortisol, DHEA, testosterone, and estrogens. If you can’t produce healthy levels of progesterone, for example, it’s going to be pretty tough to address estrogen dominance.
Ultimately, enzymes are important for getting your hormones back in balance.
Why don’t we have enough digestive enzymes?
Low digestive enzyme levels may be due to poor pancreatic function causing the exocrine glands to produce fewer enzymes. Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI) may be caused by:
- Insulin dysregulation due to diabetes or diet, or other problems with the endocrine part of the pancreas
- Gallstones blocking the bile duct and obstructing the flow of pancreatic juices
- Dysfunction of the Sphincter of Oddi which allows bile and pancreatic juices to flow into the small intestine
- Alcohol abuse
- Protein deficiency
- Other nutrient deficiencies
Other causes of low digestive enzymes may include:
- Chronic inflammation in the gut
- Low stomach acid (it stimulates enzymatic production)
- Intestinal dysbiosis (such as Candida, SIBO or h.pylori)
- A diet that promotes inflammation, such as refined flour and sugar, processed food, alcohol
- Food sensitivities like gluten, dairy, corn, soy
- Physical, emotion, or psychological stress
- Pregnancy, which places extra demands on the body
- Aging, which leads to a decline in overall function, including pancreatic and digestive functions
Signs and symptoms of insufficient enzymes
Some signs and symptoms you may experience if your enzymes levels are low include:
- Occasional bloating and gas, particularly after eating
- Feeling full after eating only a small quantity of food
- Feeling like food sits undigested for hours (especially after eating protein and fats)
- Infrequent mild indigestion/heartburn (components of undigested food bubbles back up into the esophagus)
- Bowel irregularities such as occasional diarrhea and/or constipation
- Seeing undigested food particles in the poop
- Multiple food sensitivities
- Estrogen dominance
- History of gallbladder problems
- Lost gallbladder to surgery
Types of enzymes and what each does
There are many types of digestive enzymes, most of which are secreted in the mouth, the pancreas or the small intestine. We won’t cover them all here, but will go over some key enzymes that may be impacting your digestion, hormones, and overall health:
Amylase – This enzyme is the main enzyme in saliva and helps break down amylose, a form of starch, into smaller sugars. The salivary glands and the pancreas secrete amylase. The salivary amylase accompanies food down to the stomach, where it makes up a part of the gastric juices/stomach acid until it is inactivated there by the acidic pH.
For amylase to do its work, it’s important to chew your food at least 25 times before swallowing. This will allow the food to get broken down well and for amylase to break the carbohydrates down. Pouring a smoothie (no matter how healthy it is) down your throat in great rush won’t allow the nutrients to be broken down and fully absorbed.
Pepsin – This enzyme is made by cells called “chief cells” in the stomach when pepsinogens (inactive or pro-enzymes) are exposed to acid. It is the main proteolytic (protein-digesting) enzyme in the stomach.
Protease – This group of enzymes breaks down protein molecules into single amino acids. The pancreas produces trypsin, chymotrypsin, and carboxypeptidase, which are all proteases.
Dipeptidyl Peptidase-4 (DPP-IV) – This enzyme is found both on the surface of cells and in soluble form in the plasma. It is a protease which has many different functions, including communication between cells and immune system regulation. DPP-IV binds to proline-rich proteins and polypeptides. (Proline is an amino acid). Examples of these just so happen to include gliadin (the main allergenic component of gluten) and casein (allergenic protein in milk). As a result, consuming an enzyme-containing DPP-IV may render gluten and casein less harmful.
Glucoamylase – This enzyme is located on the brush border (“shag carpet” lining) of the small intestine. It helps break down complex carbohydrates like starches into simpler sugars.
Lactase – This enzyme helps digest lactose, known as the “milk sugar.” It is secreted along the brush border of the small intestine. If you don’t have adequate levels of lactase, you will be “Lactose Intolerant” and may experience negative symptoms after ingesting milk products.
Lipase – This enzyme helps emulsify and digest lipids, or fats. It is produced by the mouth (lingual lipase), stomach (gastric lipase), pancreas (pancreatic lipase), and small intestine (as monoglyceride lipase). If your body doesn’t digest fats well, your body gets depleted in fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and K. It’s important to break down fats so they’re available as raw materials for making these important hormones: cortisol, estrogen, progesterone, DHEA, and testosterone.
Lipase breaks down fats – a raw material for making: cortisol, estrogens, progesterone, DHEA, and testosterone.
Importance of sufficient stomach acid to produce enzymes
If you don’t have enough hydrochloric acid (HCl) in your stomach, you’re not going to be able to produce the enzymes that you need to digest your food. HCl is needed for the conversion of a substance called pepsinogen, produced in the stomach, to be converted into the enzyme, pepsin, which breaks down proteins.
It’s really important to break down proteins completely — especially if you are dealing with hyperpermeability of your intestinal lining, otherwise known as “leaky gut.” When you have a leaky gut, food particles that haven’t been broken down completely are able to go through the one-cell-thick lining of the small intestine and enter the bloodstream. These undigested proteins set off an immune response in the body, as they seem to be foreign invaders. This can show up as food allergies.
Some of these proteins have a similar structure to some proteins in the body, a phenomenon known as “molecular mimicry.” This can cause the body to not only attack the undigested food proteins but also cross-react with the proteins that make up our body’s tissues. For instance, gluten that enters the bloodstream prematurely can be mistaken for thyroid tissue. The body then attacks both, and pretty soon you are dealing with autoimmune thyroid disease. And that’s only one example.
Stomach acid also helps the body start to unfold proteins and get them ready for the action of enzymes from the stomach and pancreas.
If your stomach acid is low, you’re going to have a rough time digesting proteins. You might resort to a vegetarian diet since you feel you “don’t do well on meat.”
Additionally, sufficient stomach acid is needed for you to absorb certain vitamins, like B6 and folic acids, and minerals, like iron, calcium, and magnesium. Magnesium is needed for your body to complete around 300 enzyme responses. Many of these responses impact your natural hormone balance. B6 and folate are needed, along with the other B vitamins, for many functions of your endocrine system. Read more here.
I did a whole call on how to test for low stomach acid, its importance in hormonal balance and how to fix it in this video.
What I often use and recommend
Hormone Balance Nutritionals (our supplement brand) is now carrying a new product – we simply call it Digestive Enzymes.
A few highlights about this supplement and what it contains:
#1: Betaine hydrochloride (HCl) – an excellent source of hydrochloric acid, also known as stomach acid. Betaine HCl helps to support proper stomach acidity, as adequate HCl is necessary to begin the breakdown of proteins and to trigger the secretion of enzymes that help digest fats, carbohydrates and proteins.
#2: Proprietary blend of digestive enzymes includes:
- Dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPPIV) – a special enzyme which aids in the breakdown of gluten and casein (hard-to-digest proteins in wheat and milk)
- Lactase – the enzyme which helps digest lactose, known as the “milk sugar”
- Ox bile extract and lipase – to emulsify and digest fats and fat-soluble vitamins
If you feel like this will help your digestion, add our Digestive Enzymes to your protocol and see how it helps you.
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Jones, D, Quinn, S. Textbook of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, WA: The Institute for Functional Medicine; 2010.
Murray, M, Pizzorno, J. The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 3rd ed. New York, NY: Atria Books; 2012.Tortora, G, Derrickson, B. Principles of Anatomy & Physiology, 13th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2012.