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Most people believe that digestion happens in the stomach.
The truth is that the moment you take your first bite and begin to chew, enzymes begin to break down food into usable bits.
An enzyme is a long protein that folds into a three-dimensional structure.
When you heat enzymes, you denature them, and they lose their shape. Denatured enzymes are no longer active in the body.
Specific enzymes perform very specific functions in the body. When it comes to digestion, you will see enzymes like:
- Protease, to digest proteins
- Lipase, to digest fats
- Amylase, to digest carbohydrates
- Cellulase, to digest soluble fiber
Where Does Digestion Happen?
Healthy digestion starts with that first bite. Enzymes begin to break down carbohydrates and fats in the mouth, and protein is fully digested in the stomach.
In the mouth, the enzyme amylase begins to break down carbohydrates into simpler sugars. Lipase is also there. Lipase begins the complex process of digesting fats.
While carbohydrates and fats start to break down in the mouth, the digestion of protein begins in the stomach.
Stomach acid, or HCl (hydrochloric acid), activates the most important protein enzyme in the stomach—pepsin. Pepsin is a protease enzyme that breaks down food proteins into smaller fragments. It is worth noting that stress can shut down digestion in the stomach.
In the small intestine, the pancreas secretes pancreatic enzymes that continue degrading proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Enzymes Have an “ON” Switch
The pH in the mouth, stomach, and small intestine must fall within a certain range in order to unlock and activate enzymes. Each group of enzymes requires a different pH.
For example, the stomach must be acidic in order for protein to break down into its smaller parts. Likewise, the small intestine must be alkaline in order for carbohydrates and fats to fully degrade.
Unfortunately, as much as enzymes must be turned “ON,” the wrong environment can also turn them “OFF.”
If the pH of the small intestine is too acidic, lipase (the enzyme that helps digest fat) is inactivated. This is irreversible. (1) Other pancreatic enzymes are also denatured and ineffective when the small intestine becomes overly acidic. (2)
Missing Enzymes Can Lead to Bacterial Overgrowth
As it turns out, bacteria—even good bacteria—can cause trouble. The small intestine should be relatively clear of bacteria. Any bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine is bad news. It can mean cramping, bloating, and pain. Brush border enzymes are naturally secreted into the small intestine by the pancreas. They keep the contents of the small intestine moving.
Brush border enzymes—amylase, cellulase, invertase (or sucrase), peptidase, and malt diastase (or maltase)—keep food from stagnating in the gut and prevent bacterial overgrowth. (3) One study found that up to 40% of people without enough pancreatic enzymes also have bacterial overgrowth. (4)
Brush border enzymes work mainly at night when you are sleeping. This is one reason you are warned against eating late at night or right before bedtime.
When you do happen to eat late or right before bed, make a cup of ginger tea. It turns out that ginger:
- Enhances digestion by increasing the activity of enzymes lipase, amylase, sucrase, and maltase. (5)(6)
- Stimulates the synthesis of protease enzymes trypsin and chymotrypsin. (7)
- Stimulates brush border enzymes. (8)
When Fat Is Difficult to Digest
If you are unable to stomach fatty foods, consider a deficiency in pancreatic enzymes.
Studies show that the pancreas is responsible for most of the lipase that the body uses to break down fats. The small amount of lipase in the mouth and stomach only accounts for about 10% of fat digestion. (9)
Signs of lipase inactivity and missing pancreatic enzymes are:
- Loose, greasy, foul-smelling stools
- Deficiency in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- Bloating and cramping pain
Lipase is one of the more delicate enzymes. It quickly becomes inactive in the small intestine. Even when the small intestine is perfectly alkaline, lipase is only active for a short period of time. (10)(11)
Studies show that the activity of lipase enzymes is prolonged by the presence fat. (12)
In other words, according to research it is no longer advisable to simply restrict fat. (13) Instead, follow the principle of 80/20 and eliminate hard-to-digest foods. Coconut oil is rich in fat that is easily and directly absorbed. Coconut oil can also stimulate lipase enzymes.
Vegans May Need More Enzymes to Digest Protein
In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Dairy Science, researchers investigated how different forms of protein affect levels of pancreatic enzymes. The study compared skim milk formula to soybean formula.
Researchers found that the body requires twice as many protease enzymes to digest soy. (14)
In order to get enough protein in their diet, many vegans and vegetarians rely heavily on soy. Unfortunately, those on a vegan diet are also especially deficient in protease enzymes.
Remember, missing enzymes can lead to bacterial overgrowth and intestinal inflammation and make the environment in the small intestine acidic. If the small intestine is too acidic, pancreatic enzymes never have a chance to turn “ON.”
Body Ecology’s Super Spirulina Plus was developed with this in mind. Super Spirulina Plus is a predigested and fermented blend of protein-rich foods like spirulina, chickpeas, biodynamic rice, flaxseed, millet, and quinoa.
When Should You Take Enzymes?
One study published in 2005 found that enzyme therapy is most effective when enzymes are taken with food or just after meals—as opposed to before meals. (15) This mimics the natural release of enzymes in the body.
What To Remember Most About This Article:
Digestion begins the moment that you start to chew your food, before it even reaches the stomach. Enzymes start to break down food, with specific enzymes to digest proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and soluble fiber.
Each group of enzymes requires a different pH to function. In the wrong environment, enzymes can be deactivated to inhibit the digestive process. Missing enzymes in the small intestine can also contribute to bacterial overgrowth.
If you have a hard time digesting fat, you may need more support from pancreatic enzymes. Vegans and vegetarians can also benefit from more enzymes to digest protein to prevent bacterial overgrowth and inflammation. Body Ecology’s Super Spirulina Plus is a vegan-friendly product made with predigested, fermented proteins for this very purpose.
To get the most out of your enzymes, take Assist Full Spectrum, Assist SI, and Assist Dairy and Protein with or after finishing a meal. This will mimic the natural process of enzyme release in the body that supports healthy digestion.
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- DiMagno EP, Malagelada JR, Go VLW, Moertel CG. Fate of orally ingested enzymes in pancreatic insufficiency: comparison of two dosage schedules. N. Engl. J. Med. 1977; 296: 1318–22.
- Dutta SK, Russell RM, Iber FL. Impaired acid neutralization in the duodenum in pancreatic insufficiency. Dig Dis Sci. 1979;24(10):775-780.
- Pieramico O, Dominguez-Munoz JE, Nelson DK, Bock W, Buchler M, Malfertheiner P. Interdigestive cycling in chronic pancreatitis: altered coordination among pancreatic secretion, motility, and hormones. Gastroenterology 1995; 109: 224–30.
- Casellas F, Guarner L, Vaquero E, Antolin M, de Gracia X, Malagelada JR. Hydrogen breath test with glucose in exocrine pancreatic insufficiency. Pancreas 1998; 16: 481–6.
- Platel, K., & Srinivasan, K. Influence of dietary spices or their active principles on digestive enzymes of small intestinal mucosa in rats. International journal of food sciences and nutrition, 1996; 47(1): 55-59.
- Ramakrishna Rao, R., Platel, K., & Srinivasan, K. In vitro influence of spices and spice‐active principles on digestive enzymes of rat pancreas and small intestine. Food/Nahrung, 2003; 47(6): 408-412.
- Platel, K., & Srinivasan, K. Influence of dietary spices and their active principles on pancreatic digestive enzymes in albino rats. Food/Nahrung, 2000; 44(1): 42-46.
- Prakash, U. N., & Srinivasan, K. Beneficial influence of dietary spices on the ultrastructure and fluidity of the intestinal brush border in rats. British Journal of Nutrition, 2010; 104(1): 31.
- Ferrone M, Raimondo M, Scolapio JS. Pancreatic enzyme pharmacotherapy. Pharmacotherapy. 2007;27(6):910-920.
- Holtmann G, Kelly DG, Sternby B, DiMagno EP. Survival of human pancreatic enzymes during small bowel transit: effect of nutrients, bile acids, and enzymes. Am J Physiol. 1997;273(2 Pt 1):G553-G558.
- Layer P, Jansen JB, Cherian L, Lamers CB, Goebell H. Feedback regulation of human pancreatic secretion. Effects of protease inhibition on duodenal delivery and small intestinal transit of pancreatic enzymes. Gastroenterology. 1990;98(5 Pt 1):1311-1319.
- Suzuki A, Mizumoto A, Rerknimitr R et al. Effect of bacterial or porcine lipase with low- or high-fat diets on nutrient absorption in pancreatic insufficient dogs. Gastroenterology 1999; 116: 431–7.
- Domínguez-Muñoz, J. E. Pancreatic enzyme therapy for pancreatic exocrine insufficiency. Current gastroenterology reports, 2007; 9(2), 116-122.
- Guilloteau, P., Plodari, M., Romé, V., Savary, G., Le Normand, L., & Zabielski, R. Pancreatic enzyme deficiency depends on dietary protein origin in milk-fed calves. Journal of dairy science, 2011; 94(3), 1517-1525.
- Dominguez-Munoz JE, Iglesias-Garcia J, Iglesias-Rey M, Figueiras A, Vilarino-Insua M. Effect of the administration schedule on the therapeutic efficacy of oral pancreatic enzyme supplements in patients with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency: a randomized, three-way crossover study. Aliment. Pharmacol. Ther. 2005; 21: 993–1000.
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