What the heck are digestive enzymes, and where and how do they work to make our bodies break down food and nutrients the right way?
Here are the basics:
Your body uses digestive enzymes to break down food into its nutrient constituents so you can absorb the good stuff (amino acids, simple sugars, fatty acids, vitamins, etc.) and use it all to produce energy.
The process starts in your mouth, with your saliva, which produces digestive enzymes. Chewing gets the food right into the process of breakdown.
Lots of other organs touch the food throughout the process, each playing its own role in getting the nutrients into your bloodstream.
The stomach secretes acid and enzymes to break the food down into a liquid or past before it moves into the small intestine.
In your small intestine, the breakdown continues as the intestine contracts, mixing the food with more secretions and with enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver. Also in your small intestine, nutrients begin to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
So, what are those enzymes, and what are they doing, exactly?
There are a couple of key digestive enzymes that are easy to think about in terms of which types of foods they break down. Let’s start with the proteins.
Protein is built with amino acids. Protease enzymes begin their work in your stomach, breaking down the bonds between amino acids. One enzyme that helps: pepsin. It preps your food for your small intestine, where it will be confronted by more proteases that just want those amino acids.
Once freed from their bonds, the amino acids will start working their way into your bloodstream through the intestinal lining.
These enzymes, as their name implies, break down carbs into sugars. That process begins in your mouth. Amylase from your saliva starts breaking big starch molecules into smaller components. The process isn’t active while the food is in your stomach, but commences with the introduction of pancreatic amylase in the small bowel.
The remaining bonds, like two-sugar carbs, are for your small intestine to handle. It breaks the disaccharides into one-sugar molecules called monosaccharides, including the well known glucose and fructose. Your body uses these to produce energy, too!
Lipase is produced by your pancreas. Fats are called lipids; lipase breaks down fat molecules into fatty acids and monoglycerides in the small intestine. They, like the amino acids and monosaccharides, are absorbed into your bloodstream.
With these fats, your organs and tissues can form new substances like hormones. Pretty important stuff!
Technically, lactase isn’t quite in the same category as the other three types of enzymes mentioned above. Unlike the others, which are classes of enzymes, lactase is a specific enzyme that breaks down milk sugar. It deserves its own mention because so many people struggle with lactose intolerance, a disorder that is actually an issue with the digestive enzyme.
Pancreatic Production: It’s Necessary
If your pancreas doesn’t produce a sufficient amount of enzymes to help your body break down your food molecules into nutrients you can absorb, your body can miss out on health and not even realize it. Pancreatic insufficiency is more common among those with pancreatic cancer or chronic inflammation. Guess how it’s treated? Enzyme replacement therapy!
Are you interested in learning more about your digestive health? Check out our selection of digestive support supplements to learn about beneficial bacteria, supplementing with enzymes, and how it all comes together—by breaking apart!