If there is one system in the body that fascinates me the most, it’s the digestive system. There is so much that happens from the moment your mind decides it’s time to eat to the moment of elimination. The good news is that, generally, there is no thought required as it happens automatically; it even occurs while you sleep! The bad news is, sometimes and for many reasons, digestive function can weaken and become inefficient causing symptoms to arise.
Fortunately, we have so many tools to help improve digestion. One of those tools that I recommend to patients is digestive enzymes. These are enzymes that are taken orally around the time of meals to help break food down into components the body can then readily use. For many who suffer with gastrointestinal complaints like gas, bloating, heartburn, or abdominal discomfort, digestive enzymes may be of help.
Before I dive into digestive enzymes and how they can benefit digestion, I first want to discuss the role your thoughts play in the digestive process.
Most people think about digestion occurring primarily in our stomach, but did you know that digestion actually begins before you take your first bite? In fact, seeing or smelling food can trigger the release of salivary enzymes that initiate the process of digestion.
Do you remember hearing the story of Pavlov and his dogs? Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who developed the concept of the “conditioned reflex” and won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for his research studying digestion in dogs.
He found that dogs began to salivate when a plate of food was presented to them, before they started to eat it. He began pairing a sound with the presentation of food and measured the dog’s salivary response. Pavlov repeated this activity over and over until the sound was associated with the presentation of food. With enough repetition the dogs began to salivate with the sound even when food was not given to them, which Pavlov called the conditioned reflex.
Digestive Process 101: Stress, Saliva, and Digestive Enzymes
You may be asking yourself what does Pavlov’s dogs have to do with digestive enzymes? Well, saliva production is a very important step in the digestive process that is often lacking for many reasons.
If you remember back to high school biology, there are two main branches of the autonomic nervous system: parasympathetic and sympathetic. It is the parasympathetic nervous system that is activated when our bodies are relaxed which triggers the release of salivary and digestive enzymes along the gastrointestinal tract.
When we grab meals on the go, however, racing out the door as we finish that last bite, the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated. The sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” response, will shunt blood away from the digestive tract to the heart and skeletal muscles. Additionally, while under stress the salivary glands are less inclined to produce adequate saliva.
Why is saliva production so important? The saliva in our mouth contains amylase enzymes that break down carbohydrates into simple sugar molecules. As we chew our food, we break it down into smaller pieces, increasing the surface area and allowing our salivary enzymes to fully saturate the food.
For approximately the next hour, within the top of our stomach, these salivary enzymes continue to break down our food. This process is called pre-digestion and is a very important step of digestion.
After an hour of pre-digestion, our stomach releases stomach acid (HCL) and pepsin (converted from pepsinogen). Pepsin is what starts the break down of large protein molecules into smaller molecules called peptides. Our stomach continues to churn our food until it is all broken down into a liquid substance known as chyme.
Chyme is then passed from our stomach into our small intestine. The pancreas then releases bicarbonate and digestive enzymes to reduce the pH and break down food into smaller molecules, respectively.
As chyme enters the small intestine there are three main classes of enzymes released from our pancreas that serve different functions:
- Amylases which help break down carbohydrates into simple sugars
- Proteases which help break down proteins into amino acids
- Lipases which help break down fats into fatty acids
As these enzymes break down foods into smaller molecules, the small intestine is now able to absorb nutrients more efficiently. Without digestive enzymes, this entire process would fail to occur.
What Happens When You Have Problems with Digestion?
For many reasons, symptoms can arise with poor digestion. You may benefit from taking digestive enzymes if you experience the following:
- You develop a “rock” sensation in your stomach particularly after eating larger meals
- You tend to have gas and bloating soon after eating
- You feel fatigued after eating
- You notice floating stools, which can indicate fat malabsorption
- You suffer from abdominal cramping, heartburn, and/or constipation and diarrhea
- You are deficient in nutrients (e.g. vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, etc.)
If you currently have some or all of these signs and symptoms you are not alone! Out of all the medical conditions I see in my practice, digestive troubles top the list. In our fast-paced society, poor quality food choices coupled with chronic stress and environmental toxicity equals disaster for our digestive tracts.
I could write an entire book on the causes of poor digestion, but here are some common factors that may be contributing factors:
- Eating too fast and not chewing food enough.
- Eating processed, pre-packaged food. (Processed and pre-packaged foods are often void of the natural enzymes found in raw food.)
- Eating on the go or in stressful situations.
- Taking medications like acid blockers or antacids that affect the acidity of the stomach. Or, taking medications like antibiotics that affect gut flora.
- Any gastrointestinal disorder where inflammation is present (e.g. IBD, celiac, dysbiosis, etc.)
Natural Ways to Improve Digestion
Okay, now that we’ve gone over Pavlov’s conditioned reflex and the role of the autonomic nervous system, let’s talk about how this all fits in with digestive enzymes.
In our perpetually busy culture, we tend to spend more time in “fight or flight” sympathetic mode and have developed routines around eating that are more supportive of getting things done, not properly digesting foods.
When patients come in with symptoms associated with poor digestion, I typically make these simple recommendations:
- Incorporate more raw foods into your diet particularly if you eat a lot of packaged foods.
- To support the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, take a long deep, relaxing breath and smell your food before you begin eating.
- Focus on eating the food in front of you, and leave behind work to do, deadlines, bills to pay, or any other stressor.
- Refrain from stressful conversations during meals. Talk about something positive.
- Turn the TV off, particularly the news! The news channels are very effective at stimulating our sympathetic nervous system.
- Try taking ½ tsp apple cider vinegar or 15 drops of bitter herbs (e.g. Swedish Bitters) in water about 10-20 minutes before meals. Apple cider vinegar and bitters help prime your digestion by facilitating the release of digestive enzymes from your stomach and small intestine.
- Try taking digestive enzymes at the beginning of your meal to help support the breakdown of food during the hour of pre-digestion. Digestive enzymes can also take pressure off the pancreas and give your system a break.
The Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements
When looking at the vast assortment of digestive enzymes in your local health food store, you’ll want to make sure it’s a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme, which means that it contains different enzymes to target particular food components (e.g. proteins, fats, carbohydrates, etc.).
Generally speaking, there are animal, plant, and fungal derived digestive enzymes. Potency varies tremendously based on the formula, and you may need to try a couple different formulas before you find one that really makes a difference.
The best digestive enzyme supplements contain a formula that contains some or all of the following enzymes:
- Other enzymes like bromelain, cellulase, lactase, peptidase, alpha-galactosidase.
Try taking your digestive enzyme supplement at the beginning of your meal to help support the breakdown of food during the hour of pre-digestion.
Lastly, some people suffer from a deficiency of HCL (hydrochloric acid) and have gallbladder insufficiency. For these folks, supplementation with HCL and/or bile salts can make the world of difference. So, you may want to try these digestive enzymes in addition to the ones listed above if you still do not experience benefit.