Happiness: a good bank account, a good cook, and a good digestion. – Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Do you have heartburn or indigestion? Bloating? Gas? You may be suffering from a lack of important digestive enzymes. By thoroughly studying nutrition, I’ve learned the importance of a healthy digestive system. Just because we eat something does not always mean that we receive all the benefits from that food – the gut must be able to absorb it. When the cells that line the gastrointestinal (GI) tract have been chronically inflamed, the organ may not produce enough enzymes to break down the food we eat. These enzymes are the first steps in a complex process of breaking up and transporting nutrients from our food into our bloodstream for use.
What are enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are proteins that break our food into smaller particles. Most of these are made in the mouth, stomach, the pancreas and the small intestine. If they are in healthy quantities they move food down the GI tract in a specific sequence. This cascade of reactions begins in the mouth and lack of enzymes at any part of the GI can result in impairment downstream. This can result in heartburn or GERD, bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea.
How can I tell if I need more enzymes?
By analyzing the stool contents at a laboratory, we can measure enzyme production and secretion, but this is not a regular screening procedure used in most medical clinics and is often expensive. My patients know that an extremely thorough bowel history and diet diary is invaluable when determining which organs of digestion are doing their job and which could use some support.
Symptoms of poor enzyme production can be highly variable, given that there are several glands and organs involved. Perhaps the most pronounced symptom of low enzymes is a feeling of fullness after just a few bites of food, the sensation of heaviness or hardness (a “rock”) in the stomach for more than one hour after eating. Undigested food in the stool is also a big clue.
Do I take enzymes for the rest of my life?
Along with a complete health history, symptoms like these can sometimes warrant use of supplemental digestive enzymes to replace those that the gut is not producing and will give the glands and organs a slight reprieve. Giving these tissues a break can allow healing to occur. Here, enzymes are being taken to induce a particular metabolic process, (ie. like a drug) and this is usually best kept temporary. Overdosing or using them chronically can prevent the glands from reestablishing balanced function over time.
After proper enzymes are chosen and digestion is improved, diet changes and whole body therapy can help the digestive system return to a healthy state, eventually negating the need for enzymes at all. This is the goal of enzymes in therapy and your Naturopathic Doctor can help you understand the long-term plans.
How do I choose an enzyme?
There are many brands and formulas containing digestive enzymes found over the counter. Almost all of them will contain plant or synthetic derived enzymes that break up fats (lipase), sugars (amylase, lactase) and proteins (protease) as well as bromelain (from pineapple) and papain (from papaya). When being used for digestion, enzymes should always be taken before eating. Please remember enzymes taken in large doses on an empty stomach can erode the protein that make up the gut over time, likely worsening any associated conditions. It is very important to have a professional choose a formula and dosage for you.
The only thing more important than the timing of enzymatic therapy is the quality and dosage of an enzyme. Anyone who has ever compared these formulas can testify to the huge variation between protein units and enzyme contents in different formulas. Luckily – this is what I am here for! Reach out to me so we can make a plan for your long-term digestive health. First-time patients get a free, 15-minute consultation.