by Dr. Gordon Chang, PhD.
Let’s be realistic; how many adults today eat properly and regularly on a daily basis? If you’re a mom or dad, you likely have responsibilities caring for your kids or their grandparents and end up sacrificing healthy eating to meet the needs of others. If you are single this doesn’t necessarily mean you have any more time available and you may end up skipping meals or snacking when you can, and sometimes you may eat too much to compensate. If you are an older adult, whether retired or not, regular healthy meals may still be a challenge. So what can one do to improve diet and digestion? Consider supplementing with digestive enzymes to help improve proper metabolism and absorption of nutrients.
Enzymes are chemically active proteins normally produced by our body that enhance reactions between other substances. Digestive enzymes are produced by our salivary glands, stomach, small intestine, and pancreas to aid in the breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These enzymes are responsible for the breakdown of complex foods, namely proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and complex sugars, into their component parts which can then be absorbed and utilized by our bodies. Proteins (e.g. meat) are broken down into simple amino acids. These amino acids can then be absorbed by our body and used in the production of very specific and complex proteins which are required by our bodies to function properly. Carbohydrates (e.g. pasta) are broken down into simple sugars (e.g. glucose) which are used to provide energy for the brain and muscles. Fats are also broken down into simple fatty acids that are used as building blocks for cell walls and for energy.
There are times when, for various reasons, we don’t produce sufficient quantities of these enzymes. This can result in incomplete digestion; undigested carbohydrates ferment, proteins putrefy, and fats become rancid. Lactose intolerance, with its symptoms of gas, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea, is a common example of a malabsorption syndrome associated with incomplete carbohydrate digestion due to an insufficiency of the digestive enzyme lactase. Incomplete digestion of proteins may result in the presence of toxic compounds called “polyamines”. Some polyamines have been implicated in the loss of cell growth regulation seen in cancerous tumours.
When fats are not fully digested, they can cause a form of diarrhea called “steator-rhea” which can lead to dehydration, deficiencies in fat-soluble vitamins, as well as alterations in levels of blood lipids and hormones.
At a minimum, these by-products of incomplete digestion can create some havoc in the GI tract, producing symptoms like gas, bloating, fluid retention, cramps, constipation, or diarrhea. Supplemental enzymes may provide symptomatic relief. If you are going to take an enzyme supplement, look for one that is broad spectrum and provides support for the digestion of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Our bodies produce these digestive enzymes naturally but as we grow older we produce less and less of these enzymes and it is a little-known fact that men generally produce less natural enzymes than women. If one has food intolerances or allergies, a lack of digestive enzymes can lead to more serious health issues. With a decreased ability to produce the quantity of digestive enzymes necessary to break down food then undigested food can be passed into the large intestine. The bacteria that normally live in the large intestine will eat this undigested food and cause gas, bloating, flatulence, and intestinal pain. Supplementation with digestive enzymes will minimize the amount of undigested food reaching the large intestine resulting in a reduction in the amount of gas and toxins produced by the bacteria.
So what kind of digestive enzymes should one seek? Of course that can depend on one’s specific health needs but generally a multi-enzyme formula that is capable of helping one digest a wide range of foods (proteins, starches, complex sugars/sucrose, fat, milk, and cellulose) would be best and prevent one from purchasing a variety of enzymes sold separately. Look for enzymes that have a higher potency and that are active over a very wide PH range (from an acid PH found in the stomach to an alkaline PH found in the small intestine) and more importantly the enzymes should have their maximum activity in and around the normal human body temperature (37°C).
So if you notice after eating an increase of bloating, belching, flatulence, or other digestive disturbances consider taking natural digestive enzymes with your meals to improve proper nutrient absorption – and your social life!
Dr. Gordon Chang holds a PhD in Physiology and Biomedical engineering from the University of Toronto. He also has 2 years post-doctoral experience in biochemistry and has contributed numerous articles to health-oriented magazines.