Digestive enzymes are vital for keeping us in fighting form year-round. Here, we get the info on this often-overlooked aspect of our nutrition.
We all know that the colder weather and darker nights can only mean one thing: winter is coming. And, with health unsurprisingly being at the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment, I think most of us are wondering what we can do to help stave off those pesky winter colds.
Along with exercise, nutrition plays one of the biggest roles in keeping our bodies as healthy as possible. But, while we often hear about the beneficial impact of macronutrients such as protein and fibre, other aspects of nutrition tend to get less of a mention.
Digestive enzymes, for example, are crucial for healthy digestion and help us to get the most goodness possible out of the foods we eat. But what exactly are they? And what (if anything) do we need to do to up our intake? Women’s health dietician Valerie Agyeman, RD, has the answers.
What are digestive enzymes?
Our body produces digestive enzymes in order for them to “break down food for nutrients to be extracted,” explains Valerie. “Once broken down into small enough molecules, the nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine.”
Basically, then, they “serve as a catalyst in nutrient absorption.” This means that, “without digestive enzymes, our bodies cannot access the nutrients our food provides us with and can cause poor digestion,” which can have a knock-on effect on our gut health.
Do our bodies naturally make digestive enzymes?
They do! According to Valerie, “the mouth, stomach, small intestine and pancreas make digestive enzymes,” of which there are four types: “amylase, lipase, protease and peptidase.”
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Each of these enzymes “functions to break down different nutrients,” she goes on to explain. Amylase, for example, is “found in the salivary glands and pancreas, and breaks down carbohydrates,” while lipase is found in the “mouth, stomach and pancreas” and “breaks down fats to be absorbed in the small intestine.” Protease and peptidase are both found in the pancreas and “break down proteins.”
What foods are high in natural digestive enzymes?
There are plenty of foods you can eat that are naturally high in digestive enzymes, particularly “fruits such as papayas, bananas, avocados and pineapple,” Valerie says.
“You can also find high levels of digestive enzymes in raw honey, ginger, and fermented foods such as kefir and kimchi.”
Can we take supplements to up our digestive enzymes intake?
While digestive enzyme supplementation “is very common,” Valerie warns against jumping into trying it for yourself. She explains that, “since digestive enzymes are naturally occurring in the body, most healthy individuals will not require supplements,” and so it is important that people are informed and “seek advice from a healthcare provider before deciding if a digestive enzyme is right for them.”
There are, however, certain conditions which “cause the body to make less enzymes” and which can therefore be “managed with supplementation,” says Valerie. “For example, an individual with lactose intolerance lacks the enzyme lactase, and they can benefit from an over-the-counter supplement that will assist the digestive process.” However, be mindful of the fact that the effectiveness of over-the-counter supplements “is not always clear.”
There are other, more severe, conditions which can also be managed by digestive enzyme supplementation, “such as cystic fibrosis.” In this case, though, it is likely that “a digestive enzyme will be prescribed by a doctor, to help accommodate the lack of enzyme production and alleviate symptoms of their condition.”
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