Digestive Enzymes - the inside story!

digestive_health_460When we eat food it needs to be broken down into smaller pieces so we can absorb it across the gut lining and into our systems to be used for cellular energy. The nutrients we absorb are used for building and repairing the body and supporting all the glandular, organ (liver, kidney) and immune systems.

There are three main food types: proteins, carbohydrates and fats.


Digestion of our food starts as soon as it enters our mouth and is mixed with the saliva that contains enzymes to start to break it down; hence the encouragement by many food advisors, to “chew our food” more for better digestion.

An enzyme is a substance that helps to create a chemical reaction or a change in a substance. So for example with proteins we want to create a change to break them down into simple smaller protein pieces or amino acids that are then able to be absorbed by the body to build our organs and hormones and muscles and soft tissues and so on.

In the saliva we have enzymes that help break down the carbohydrates called amylase and another enzyme called lipase that helps break down the fats. Let’s follow the path of the three main food subgroups…

Protein is chewed in the mouth then swallowed and broken down with the help of the stomach acid and an enzyme in the stomach called pepsin. The large chunks of protein are broken down into smaller chains of proteins in the stomach called “polypeptides”. “Poly” means “many” and “peptide” means “protein” so these are still big molecules of protein that leave the stomach and go into the small intestine.

You can see straight away that if you have a low stomach acid or lack stomach acid or the enzyme Pepsin that these big chunks of meat will go into the gut still being too big and then begin to create problems as they basically putrefy and are broken down by the action of bacteria as they sit there and create toxins, headaches and so on.

Some countries eat bitter herbs and tonics to help stimulate the stomach acid to aid digestion. Herbs like parsley and the other bitter greens you eat with meats help stimulate the digestion to break down the meats with the stomach acid. Eating cultured vegetables like a little sauerkraut with our animal protein meals helps digest them and break them down to the healthy bacteria. Apple cider vinegar and lemon juice even though alkaline helps to cleanse the palate and improve digestion as we eat.

Adding a big load of carbohydrates, bread or starchy vegetables like potatoes doesn’t help this whole process of breaking down the animal proteins so best to stick to raw and simple lightly cooked non starch vegetables with your meat and other animal proteins.

To digest vegetarian proteins like beans, lentils and so on again you are best to pre-soak them for a few hours to help break them down ready for digestion. Japanese cultures even ferment soy beans to make them more digestible. “Sprouting” (by soaking in a jar in sunlight) hard grains, beans and seeds also helps them digest them easier and releases some great nutrients.

In the small intestine the pancreas releases two more protein dividing enzymes (“proteinases”) called trypsin and chymotrypsin. These take the long protein chains (polypeptides) and break them down into free small amino acids and smaller 2 and 3 chain amino acid molecules called “di or tri-peptides”. You maybe have heard of amino acids like tyrosine, lysine, arginine and other amino acid names before.

Once the large proteins have been broken down into these smaller amino acids or peptides they are then small enough to be directly absorbed by the intestinal mucosa (lining of the gut).

Proteins are the building blocks for our DNA, genetic nucleus or centre of the cells and all our hormones like thyroid or adrenal hormones or mood hormones!

Carbohydrates are things like the grains, flour, any sugar type foods, starchy vegetables, pasta and vegetables in general have some starch or carbohydrate along with the fibre or cellulose that makes up the tough plant cell walls.

Chewing begins and the amylase enzyme in the saliva starts to break down the big carbohydrate molecules into smaller forms. These pass through the stomach and then the pancreas juices containing a lot more amylase enzyme squirt into the small bowel and help break the carbohydrate chains into smaller and smaller pieces (called maltose and maltotriose). The gut cells lining the gut then use special enzymes called disaccharidases to split these carbohydrates into the single sugar form called glucose.

Glucose travels around in the blood and if we have been exercising the muscles will take the glucose in and use it otherwise the body tends to convert the glucose over into adipose or fat cells for later use. The brain, adrenals and kidneys and other key organs all need glucose for their energy so it is very important.

If we have too much glucose floating around (too much glucose or “glycaemic load”) it can cause inflammation and problems like diabetes.

If we can’t digest and break down carbohydrates properly due to lack of digestive enzymes we can feel very tired, brain fog and our systems lack the glucose that is a vital nutrient for cellular energy.

After many years of squirting our lots of digestive enzymes every day the pancreas can become “tired” and not digest as well as it used to and we can build up these bigger sugar molecules in the gut that then ferment and cause bloating and gas and feed the bacteria and yeast that love sugar like Streptococci species and Candida albicans (thrush type yeast).

These bacteria crave sugar and will even encourage you to eat sugar based foods to “feed” them as they seek to overgrow and take over the inner gut balance of bacteria. This sugar based diet gives an initial “pep” or “lift” in energy, but in the longer term it depletes your energy and vitamins and minerals and health. Eating slow “burning” carbohydrates that take a while to breakdown into glucose can avoid these big swings in blood sugar, avoid overgrowth of these nasty bugs that affect your mood and nervous system and health and keep you feeling better as you take in less glucose load. The weight stays more stable.

b12_vitamin_well-being-imageFoods that turn too quickly into glucose are said to have a high glycaemic (“glyc”=glucose and “aemic” = blood) index or GI rating and foods that take ages to digest are “low GI” foods and better for your energy control and blood sugar control. Refined white sugar or white bread is “high GI” and gets glucose quickly into the blood and kumara would be lower GI while hummus is even lower “GI”.

Lastly we come to fats.

Fats are again chewed in the mouth with salivary lipase enzyme helps start digestion. Then the pancreas releases more lipase enzyme in the small bowel.

Pancreatic lipase splits the tri(three) glyceride (fat) into mono(one) glyceride and some free “fatty acids” that are well absorbed in the upper small bowel. This is all a bit technical so hope you are still with me!

Bile acids (green squirted liquid) help with this whole process too from the liver and gallbladder.

Some digestive enzyme supplements have extra “ox bile” to help with the fat digestion so you get the most out of your fat digestion.

Fats are essential for making all the hormones in the body. Fats when healthy are anti-inflammatory and help soothe inflammation or sore areas in the body, muscles and any area that is inflamed.

Raw foods like vegetables and fruit contain naturally occurring enzymes. There is an enzyme called Bromelain that helps to break down the very large “macromolecules” that sometimes get into the gut from foods or other allergy sources. The bromelain actually can break down these big potential allergy producing proteins while in the gut and thus prevent them going through the gut or creating damage and allergy. Fresh pineapple is rich in bromelain. Ripe, organic fruit in season is rich in enzymes.

PawPaw has papain – another excellent enzyme. Raw, organic vegetables are rich in enzymes. Lightly cooked vegetables still have some enzymes. Overcooked food loses these natural food enzymes and the pancreas then has to spend years pouring out lots of enzymes internally to digest our cooked food which is apparently quite a strain.

There are even enzymes or digestive enzyme supplements which have raw organic enzymes in them to help digest all the different parts of things like hard to digest vegetables, beans, dairy and gluten. It is not a substitute for healthy eating, soaking your beans, keeping mostly dairy or gluten free, but the enzymes can help if you get caught out and eat something you know gives you trouble like broccoli and beans or dairy and gluten.

Garden of Life is one brand of digestive enzymes with no harmful fillers and in vegetable capsules which has great quality plant enzymes. IE Produce and similar wholefood stores stock these in store or you can order online. Joyce the owner of IE Produce told me tonight – “they are flying out the door they are such great enzymes”.

Wobenzym from Nutrisearch in Napier is another enzyme combination that is often taken between meals to help an aching body. It is rich in pineapple (bromelain) and pawpaw(papaya) papain enzyme. Taken between meals it can help break down these bigger allergen molecules and is supposed to help sort out inflammation in the body.

Ultrazyme is another one by Nutrisearch to help break down your meals with all the lipase, amylase, pepsin and bromelain I mention and includes Ox Bile.

Digezyme is one from MD-Nutritionals that I like as it is made from microbes from fermented plant sources. I have used with good success on patients over the years.
It contains:

Amylase Aspergillus oryza Carbohydrates (starches & other olysaccharides)
Cellulase Trichoderma longibrachiatum Cellulose (plant fibre)
Lipase Rhizopusoryzae Fats (triglycerides and other lipids)
Protease Aspergillus oryzae Protein (large amino acid chains)
Tilactase Aspergillus oryzae Lactose (milk sugar)

Digestive enzymes even come up under cancer research for helping break down cancer cell resistance and clean up scar tissue. There are reports of using bigger doses of the pancreatic and digestive enzymes between meals as an adjunct to cancer therapies and to help clean up scar or fibrous tissues.

Premier Research Laboratories do a plant based living source digestive enzyme that I like too.

As I mentioned some digestive enzymes are animal based and contain extra things like ox bile to aid fat digestion and some are purely plant based. So if you are vegetarian you can find plant based ones easily.

Perhaps have a look at some of the ones I mention and try having some with your bigger meals or your protein meals to help digestion. Try eat more raw foods or lightly cooked foods and try a little fruit like pineapple, mango, papaya, kiwi fruit (ripe and full of enzymes) between your meals. Fruit has natural sugars in it so is not ideal if you are trying to clear Candida, but can be great for enzymes and does not bloat or ferment if you eat it on its own between your bigger meals.

If you are young and have an excellent digestion you may not need digestive enzymes and can just eat more raw foods and fermented or cultured or bitter foods to help your digestion.

If you are having some digestion problems or adrenal fatigue or perhaps not absorbing as many nutrients as you would like or think you should be, then digestive enzymes could be very helpful to you and support your pancreas and enzyme systems as you heal.

Swapping onto raw foods can be quite a shock to the system and some vegetables are hard to digest so smoothies and so on are used to help break down the plants into smaller particles to aid digestion. Plant enzymes are also very helpful, so consider these in the quest for a better digestion of all your nutrients and to help your immune system and all systems get the nutrients they need to work well.

Let me know how you go and I am always interested to hear about different experiences or types of enzymes and people’s stories using them – so please write to me with your news.