Gut health has always been important, but it’s seen its time in the limelight a lot more in the past few years. Research has found that a healthy gut contributes to a strong immune system, heart health, brain health and better sleep. What supports your gut in its digestive functions? Enzymes. These proteins help convert your food and nutrients into substances that your body can digest, making them absolutely essential to keep your gut health in top shape. Here’s everything you need to know about enzymes, why they matter, how you can include them in your diet and the best forms of supplementation.
Digestive enzymes 101
“Digestive enzymes are released in the cephalic phase of digestion, which starts at the thought of the smell or taste of the food, and helps to facilitate 20 to 30 per cent of the process before the food even enters the system,” says Janvi Chitalia, Mumbai-based integrative gut microbiome health coach and functional medicine nutritionist. “The key of the digestive enzyme is to break down a specific nutrient to the form where it can be absorbed easily.” This naturally makes having a healthy amount of enzymes in your body essential for a healthy gut. You may be consuming a balanced diet, but if your body is unable to process them to use as fuel for energy, the nutrients are essentially going to waste. Chitalia explains the different types of digestive enzymes and their functions.
• Amylase: This breaks down starches and carbohydrates into sugars. Amylase is produced in the salivary glands, pancreas, and small intestine.
• Protease: This helps break down protein into amino acids. Protease is produced in the stomach, pancreas and small intestine; most reactions occur in the stomach. Small intestine proteases are produced in the stomach and pancreas such as pepsin and trypsin and chymotrypsin. Pepsin is one of the main enzymes used to break down proteins into peptides.
• Lipase: Lipase helps break down lipids into glycerol and fatty acids. Lipase is produced in the pancreas and small intestine.
• Lactase: Lactase is an enzyme known to break down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products into simpler forms of sugar that are easily absorbed such as glucose and galactose. Often people lose the partial capacity of this enzyme by the age of three and find it hard to break down lactose in the body, found substantially in milk and can cause lactose intolerance.
• Maltase: Maltase is secreted by the small intestine and its role is to break down malt into glucose that the body can use as fuel for energy. Starch is partially transformed into maltose by the amylase enzyme and then into glucose.
• Phytase: Phytase supports the digestion of phytic acid in grains, nuts, and legumes.
• Cellulase: Cellulase aids in converting cellulose, a type of plant fibre into beta glucose.
Foods that contain enzymes to aid digestion
“People who complain of gas, flatulence, digestive discomfort, disturbed stools, and feel like food sits in their stomach for hours after eating should consider using digestive enzymes. A specific pattern after each meal of discomfort can be a sign to look out for,” explains Chitalia.
Fruits are a great source. Pineapples, kiwis and papayas boast enzymes that help break down and digest proteins in the best way, while mangoes contain amylase, which works well for carbohydrates. Even avocados are a great gut food—it contains the lipase, which aids in metabolising fat. “It would help to ensure that you eat these fruits fresh and raw which helps to keep the enzymes intact. Also, you should preferably consume them in the first half of the day when the digestive fire of the body is higher,” says Chitalia.
“Fermented foods also contain enzymes along with their benefits for a good microbe balance,” she says, citing sauerkraut, miso and kimchi, which contain enzymes that are able to break down dairy, fat, carbohydrates, and proteins. Kefir grains are key too. They are cultures of yeast, lactic
acid bacteria, and acetic acid bacteria. During fermentation, the bacteria digests the natural sugars in the milk and convert them to acids and carbon dioxide. Kefir contains many digestive enzymes including lipase, protease, and lactase. It can be consumed between meals as a drink or as a side dish to main meals.
What you should know about digestive enzyme supplements
“It is recommended that one first try natural ways to increase digestive breakdown via the use of digestive bitters such as ginger, lime, apple cider vinegar, along with digestive enzyme foods before moving to supplements,” suggests Chitalia.
But when you do pick them, it is important to ask a gut health specialist before adding them to your diet. “When your body doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes, you’ll see issues like poor nutrient absorption or digestive tract issues which could cause bloating and diarrhoea. You can also see weight gain and obesity as well as fatigue happening to your body,” explains Ronak Shah, CEO and co-founder, Obvi, a dietary supplement brand. “When looking for supplements with enzymes you want to make sure the enzyme blend includes protease, lipase and amylase.
You should also make sure the product is made in a high-grade facility that is FDA regulated and GMP approved as well.”