Digestive enzymes have been (figuratively) under the microscope recently, with fantastic claims that they can do everything from curing depression to helping you lose weight.
People have known for some time that eating well can make them feel happier, give them more energy and enthusiasm for life and, of course, help them lose weight.
But what happens if your digestive system isn’t breaking healthy food down effectively? Since your entire body runs on these vital nutrients, an inability to break down food effectively can affect your whole body in several ways. However, there are some common symptoms you may notice if your digestion is compromised:
- Feeling bloated for days at a time
- Chronic flatulence
- Abdominal pain or discomfort
- Symptoms similar to irritable bowel syndrome
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Undigested food in the stools
- Steatorrhea (stools that float)
- Feeling full after only a few mouthfuls
- Food allergies and intolerances
These issues, if left untreated, can cause more complex issues such as obesity, depression, anxiety, fatigue and pre-menstrual symptoms.
What have enzymes got to do with it? Enzymes are the body’s way of breaking down food into the nutrients it needs to function. At each stage of digestion – from your mouth to your large intestine – different enzymes are released that help break down different nutrients. Lingual lipase, for example, begins to break down lipids (fats) in the mouth, with gastric lipase taking over the task in the stomach, and so on.
If any part of that digestive journey is lacking in the right enzymes, your food won’t be broken down properly and you’ll start to get a heavy, bloating, ‘rock-like’ feeling in your stomach.
Why don’t you have enough enzymes? There are loads of potential causes. Some common causes include:
Chronic stress – When stressed or anxious the body gets ready to protect itself by moving the blood supply away from your digestive areas to your limbs, getting you ready to fight or run (the so-called fight-or-flight response). If you’re chronically stressed, your body never gets back into the relaxed (rest-and-digest) mode necessary for digestion.
Ageing – The amount of digestive enzyme reduces as you get older. It’s not entirely clear whether this is completely natural or whether it’s the build-up of other issues, like alcohol, smoking damage or long-term stress.
Low stomach acid – Stomach acid is needed to break down food, kill pathogens, and to activate certain enzymes. Medications that reduce stomach acid are some of the most prescribed in the UK. But there are lots of other causes for these problems and antacids could be making the underlying issue worse rather than better.
Low-grade digestive tract inflammation – Often caused by infections, food sensitivities, certain foods like coffee, sugar and highly-processed foods, or a disruption to the organisms living in the intestine.
Supporting enzymes with supplements
If you think you may be suffering from enzyme deficiency, one of the quickest and easiest ways to fix it is by taking enzyme supplements.
There are three key sources of enzymes used in supplements: those from fruits like pineapple and papaya, those from animal sources, and those from microbial sources (fungi and bacteria including yeast). However, not all enzyme sources are equal.
Pineapple and Papaya – Both sources contain enzymes that help break down protein. The benefit of these is that they’re vegan and, if you eat the fruit, contain other nutrients such as fibre and vitamins. But these enzymes can find it difficult to make it through the harsh stomach acid intact and only help break down protein, limiting their helpfulness.
Animal Sources – These sources do contain the enzymes needed to break down proteins, fats and carbohydrates in the small intestine. Unfortunately, enzymes from these sources are unstable which limits their effectiveness. Additionally, pancreatin – a common animal-derived enzyme – may limit the body’s ability to absorb Vitamin B folate.
Microbial Sources – These enzyme supplements contain all the key enzymes needed to break down foods. The added benefit of these enzymes is that they can help to break down plant-based foods as well, such as beans and legumes, as well as cellulose, which is found in plants. They are also very stable and can easily make it past the stomach acid unaffected.
If, like many, you are moving to a more plant-based diet, or you are hoping to lose weight through healthy eating, then microbial sources of enzymes are especially useful. They also complement the enzymes produced naturally in the pancreas, rather than ‘overriding’ the natural system.
Ultimately, the hope is you can move away from supplements once your digestive enzymes are back in balance, so it’s better to take supplements that support your natural processes than take over these processes and potentially weaken your natural enzyme production.
There are other things you can do to support the natural rebalancing process, for instance;cut down or eliminate foods that might be causing gut inflammation from your diet, make sure you are drinking enough water, take steps to de-stress your life and slow things down a little, take your time to eat your food by chewing slower and spend some time relaxing after you’ve eaten
Kim Barnouin is the author of the New York Times bestselling book ‘Skinny Bitch’ and founder of the Skinny Bitch approach to weight loss which is based around 3 key pillars: nutrition, exercise, and effective supplementation. Skinny Bitch offers a range of weight loss programmes, recipes and food products to help you lose weight naturally and healthily.