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Understanding Digestive Enzymes

When your body starts digesting food, it produces enzymes that contribute to the process. A lack of enzymes can cause problems, so it's important to understand the purpose of each enzyme and what enzyme supplementation can do for your health.
The digestive process is a very complex mechanism that relies on proper functionality of many different components in order for the entire action to be effective. Digestion starts as soon as you start chewing your food, with saliva being the main substance in your body that begins the process. Once you swallow your food and it begins to pass through the gastrointestinal tract, digestive fluids combine with it and start to break it down into nutrients. Contained within these digestive fluids are enzymes, which work to speed up chemical reactions in your body. The presence of these enzymes is very important, and they are secreted by different parts of your GI tract, including your salivary and stomach lining glands, liver, pancreas and small intestine. Your body also receives enzymes from the foods you eat, most commonly raw ones like fruits and vegetables. If your diet does not contain many raw foods and you aren't efficiently chewing, you won't receive enzymes and your body won't be able to produce enough of them to properly complete the digestive process, according to Ellen Cutler, DC. This lack of enzymes may cause you to start exhibiting digestive problems like flatulence, heartburn, bloating and even irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), says Whole Health Chicago. At this point, your body is not properly breaking down the food you've consumed, and the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse says that you are therefore not receiving the nutrients you need for energy, growth and cell repair.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
Each enzyme works to break down different nutrients to utilize their benefits. These are some of the most abundant digestive enzymes present in your body.
  • Lipase

This enzyme works specifically to break down fats that you have consumed. Your mouth and stomach produce small quantities of lipase, while your pancreas creates larger amounts of it. Taking a lipase supplement or a comprehensive enzyme formula that contains lipase may be able to help reduce gas and bloating. In addition, lipase supplements might aid with improving symptoms of Crohn's and Celiac Disease, according to Dr. Barbara Bolen, Irritable Bowel Syndrome Expert.

  • Amylase

A carbohydrate-digesting enzyme, amylase helps to break down carbs into simple sugars which your body can then digest. Amylase is created by the salivary glands in your mouth and also your pancreas. Since your saliva contains amylase, as soon as food comes into contact with it, digestive efforts begin. Your pancreas is the final contributor in breaking down the carbs, releasing more amylase which turns them into sugar so your small intestine can absorb them.

  • Proteases

The root of this word corresponds with the type of nutrient it absorbs: protein. The three types of proteases—chrymotrypsin, pepsin and trypsin—work to break down proteins so they do not breach your intestinal wall and find their way into your bloodstream. Undigested protein that gets into your blood can cause different symptoms or issues with your health, and it goes by the name of “leaky gut syndrome,” according to Rachel Venokur-Clark, a certified holistic health counselor through The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City.

  • Nucleases

Also corresponding with the name of the nutrient it digests, nucleases break down nucleic acids like DNA and RNA, turning them into nucleotides and then further digesting them into phosphates, sugars and bases.

  • Lactase

This enzyme is necessary for breaking down lactose and sugar in dairy products. If you're lacking a supply of lactase enzymes, you may exhibit lactose intolerance, where your body is unable to digest dairy products and therefore shows signs of indigestion and other negative effects. Taking a lactase supplement before you eat dairy products may allow you to enjoy them in small amounts and even absorb the nutritional value found in them, says Dr. Bolen.

Enzyme Supplements

If you're showing signs of improper digestion or enzyme deficiency—like diarrhea, gas, bloating, and rashes for example—you might want to consider taking an enzyme supplement. The depletion of enzymes is a natural symptom of aging as well, so if you are older, enzyme supplements may be a great addition to your lifestyle. In addition to products that provide support from only one enzyme, like lipase or lactase, comprehensive and mixed formulas are available. Bromelain is one supplement that contains a variety of pineapple-derived enzymes and supplies a multifaceted approach to targeting your digestive issues. It may be able to help reduce symptoms of indigestion such as bloating, flatulence and more, as well as reducing inflammation that may have been caused by injury or infection, according to Dr. Bolen. She also suggests that bromelain may be able to provide relief from arthritis symptoms, though it is not confirmed. Bromelain may interact with prescription medications by amplifying or reducing their intended effectiveness and potency, so discuss taking this supplement with your doctor beforehand. Another common enzyme supplement is papain, which comes from the papaya fruit. It is typically used to help digest proteins and even some fats more efficiently. However, its effectiveness is not well-researched and there is no conclusive evidence for its success in improving digestion. Papain can cause allergic reactions in those with kiwi or fig allergies, and it is not appropriate for everyone. Make sure you consult your doctor before use.
Digestive issues can cause a lot of inconvenient and uncomfortable symptoms. If you're experiencing trouble when you eat certain foods, or any foods, it is very important to first speak to your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Problems that occur with digestion may hint at underlying health conditions, so it's critical for you to receive clearance and approval from your doctor before you take the first step and try remedying your situation with enzyme supplements.
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eVitamins recommends that you do not rely on the information presented in this article as diagnosis for treatment to any health claim. Content and information on this site is for reference purposes and is not intended to substitute for advice given by a physician, pharmacist, or other licensed health-care professional. You should not use this information as self-diagnosis or for treating a health problem or disease. Contact your health-care provider immediately if you suspect that you have a medical problem. The information and statements in this article have not been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or health condition. eVitamins assumes no liability for inaccuracies or misstatements.
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