You’re at your favorite restaurant. You’ve just been seated. Your eyes scour the menu: barbecue bacon cheddar burger, three-cheese macaroni, loaded steak fries, Cajun chicken alfredo. Your stomach grumbles and like one of Pavlov’s dogs, you start to salivate. Can you believe it? You haven’t even placed your order yet, but the process of digestion has already begun.
Your body is a miraculous machine that knows just what to do when you give it the fuel it needs to maintain health, upkeep your internal organs and systems, and recover from illness. But how does it all work and how do you keep it all from going wrong?
Our bodies are sensitive machines.
We’ve all heard the old adage, “You are what you eat,” but if we want to get technical (and we do, don’t we?), a more accurate credo would be “You are what you digest.” After all, eating is a superficial part of the process while digestion goes behind the scenes to perform the latent tasks that keep us going, literally. Ever tried making through an entire day’s to-do list on an empty stomach? It’s a drag.
Eating is a conscious, voluntary act we often do more for pleasure than practicality, and that’s typically where we run into trouble. Why? Well, the most pleasurable things to eat are usually the least healthy for you: processed foods high in fats and sugar. But you eat them for the experience, or convenience, and (un)fortunately you don’t have to give much thought to what happens afterwards. Your body simply picks up the baton (your meal) and starts running with it. That is, until the first cramp hits:
- bloating and gas,
- diarrhea, heart burn,
- weight gain (or loss).
Why is your body reacting this way?
Well, as miraculous as your body is, it can’t function at optimal capacity without your help. These adverse side effects are a result of kinks in the digestive process, often beginning with your general digestive health.
And what’s one thing all healthy digestive tracts have in common? You guessed it: digestive enzymes (enzymes that specifically aid in the digestion of food) and pancreatic enzymes (enzymes produced in the pancreas). Or, more accurately, the presence and quantity of naturally occurring or supplemented enzymes that are hard at work breaking down the foods we eat.
What is an enzyme?
The digestion of food is a process of biochemical reactions that serve to break macronutrients down into absorbable micronutrients. Essentially, enzymes disassemble the complex structures of our foods, reducing them to a molecular level which can then be absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine.
One word you will often hear associated with enzymes is “catalyst.” Without enzymes to catalyze (speed up) the biochemical reactions within our digestive tracts, the process of digestion would move too slowly for the body to benefit from the essential micronutrients contained in what we eat.
For the three major macronutrients—carbohydrates, proteins, and fats—there are certain digestive and pancreatic enzymes that, like specially designed keys, unlock or break down a certain type of food.
Key enzymes: salivary amylase and pancreatic
Key enzymes: protease (pepsin, chymotrypsin, trypsin).
Key enzyme: lipase.
Of course, there are many different types of digestive enzymes and agents at play in the digestive process, but these players are key in the work of providing us energy, rebuilding tissue, and cleansing and replenishing our systems.
How do enzymes break down foods?
Let’s circle back to that drool-inducing menu from your favorite restaurant. This is where the digestive process began, so that’s where we’ll start. Contained in your saliva are a number of secret agents anxiously waiting to prepare your food for digestion: lubricating agents (to get that food nice and soft for swallowing), buffering agents (to neutralize acidity), antibacterial agents (to nix those gross germs), and finally the enzymatic “tip of the spear”: salivary amylase.
Salivary amylase begins the process of digesting complex carbohydrates and starches (polysaccharides), breaking up the bonds that hold them together and creating smaller structures: maltose and dextrin. Protein-based foods will go on to begin digestion in the stomach while fats will primarily be digested in the small intestine.
The stomach’s gastric juices (hydrochloric acid and pepsinogen) begin the work of dissolving foods to kill off harmful stowaway microorganisms and to aid in the digestion of protein by triggering the conversion of pepsinogen into pepsin, another protein-hungry enzyme. Here, trypsin and chymotrypsin are given a head start as the pepsin conditions the proteins for further digestion in the small intestine, where the majority of protein’s amino acids will be released and absorbed.
The Small Intestine
From the stomach, food gets deposited in the duodenum, the upper section of the small intestine. At this point, fats are all still intact while proteins and carbohydrates are further along in the process. It’s at this stage that the pancreatic enzymes trypsin and chymotrypsin double-team proteins while another pancreatic enzyme (pancreatic amylase) gets to work on further breaking down those starches. Finally lipase gets called to the forefront as well, converting fats into glycerol and fatty acids. Moving along into the jejunum (another section of the small intestine), the final stages of nutrient absorption takes place.
Our food takes its final form in the colon (also called the large intestine), where our bodies extract the final bits of water and sodium from it before it’s cued up for a trip to the toilet.
What’s the cause of poor digestion?
As you follow the course of your food’s journey through the digestive tract, it’s easy to see how something can quickly go wrong. In the essential and complex work of digestion, any imbalance, including an imbalance of enzymes, can upset the entire process. Poor digestion, or the malabsorption of life-sustaining micronutrients, creates lasting damage that can lead to chronic conditions if left untreated, such as:
- Acid reflux
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- IBD diverticulosis (Crohn’s disease)
What can upset the balance of enzymes? A poor diet, illness, aging, and the use of antibiotics can all throw off the digestive process, which makes the work of maintaining a healthy digestive system an ongoing and unavoidable task. Remembering that you are what you digest, don’t put off consulting an expert if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of poor digestion. Make the decision to prioritize the health of your digestive and pancreatic enzymes today and start feeling better for years to come.
Food Enzymes assist the body with the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates and fats to help prevent and relieve occasional indigestion.