‘You are what you eat,’ is a popular turn of phrase used in the health and fitness industries. But what that statement fails to convey is the importance that optimal digestion plays in the equation.
It’s perhaps more apt to state that “you are what you absorb”. And some people struggle with digestive issues that can compromise their ability to adequately break down and absorb the nutrients we get from our food and supplements.
The digestion low down
Your digestive system breaks down what we eat and drink into smaller components to extract nutrients with a combination of mechanical digestion – physically chewing and contractions in the gastrointestinal tract – and chemical processes that rely on enzymes.
Your body naturally produces digestive enzymes, mainly in the pancreas, and the small intestines, stomach and even your mouth.
We also get enzymes from numerous fruits and vegetables. For example, avocados contain the digestive enzyme lipase, while mangoes and bananas contain amylase.
Natural honey has amylase and protease, and papaya has a type of protease called papain. Fermented foods like cabbage also gain digestive enzymes during the fermentation process.
Different enzymes fulfil various roles in the body by helping to break down and digest specific macronutrients and other compounds.
The main digestive enzymes include:
- Amylase – breaks complex sugars into smaller molecules like maltose.
- Lipase – breaks down complex fats into smaller fatty acids and glycerol.
- Proteases and peptidases – breaks down proteins into amino acids.
Other digestive enzymes include pepsin, an enzyme in the stomach that breaks down proteins into smaller polypeptides. Trypsin breaks down protein into amino acids in the small intestine; and lactase, which is produced by cells in the small intestine, breaks down the milk sugar called lactose.
When the body is working optimally and we eat a wholesome and balanced diet, we generally have sufficient enzymes to meet the demands associated with digesting 3-6 meals a day.
Digestive enzyme deficit
However, factors such as stress, food allergies, gut inflammation, low stomach acid, eating an unhealthy diet, alcohol and certain medications can affect enzyme production.
We also get fewer digestive enzymes from modern-day diets because heating food above 46.6°C denatures them, which renders most enzymes inactive. And many of us don’t eat sufficient raw, living plant food to sufficiently replenish our digestive enzymes.
Without sufficient digestive enzymes, your body cannot break down food effectively. That means, even if we eat a nutritious and balanced diet, you may not get all the nutrients your body needs due to a lack of adequate absorption.
A lack of sufficient digestive enzymes can also lead to discomfort in the form of bloating, gas and digestive distress such as cramps.
Support your gut
In these instances, supplemental digestive enzymes may offer support. Digestive enzyme tablets taken with meals help your body to digest the food you eat and break it down into smaller molecules so your body can absorb the nutrients you need.
Effective supplements typically contain a blend of all the major digestive enzymes. But finding the most effective product is only half the battle won.
Digestive enzymes only work when there is something to digest. Enzymes act as catalysts for a reaction – in this case digesting specific foods.
So always take digestive enzyme supplements with meals, or as directed by the label or a healthcare professional when prescribed.
And keep in mind that if you take a lipase enzyme supplement with a protein shake, it won’t deliver the desired benefit. Some digestive supplements are designed for use with specific meals. Also, check the recommended dosage, which may differ based on the type and strength of the enzyme supplement.
Digestive enzymes support healthy digestion by
- Optimising the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, and protein
- Promoting optimal nutrient absorption
- Reducing gas, bloating, indigestion, and constipation following meals
- Helping your body process difficult-to-digest foods
- Supporting colon health
Innovative supplement manufacturers are helping to take the guesswork out of digestive enzymes by including them in certain products – mainly protein shakes and meal replacement powders.
For example, Primal Sports Nutrition enriches its Diet Shake and Skinny Whey protein powders with Digezyme®. This ingredient provides a multi-enzyme complex of gluten- and GMO-free broad-acting enzymes, including amylase, lactase, cellulase, lipase and protease.
By including digestive enzymes like proteases and peptidases in the formulation ensures that more of the protein you drink in your shake or smoothie is absorbed by your body to ultimately benefit your muscles.
And the amylase, lactase and lipase enzymes help to reduce symptoms associated with lactose intolerance or other forms of digestive discomfort commonly experienced by sensitive individuals.