Breaking It Down: Digestive Enzymes

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For some of us, it is challenging enough just to try to eat a healthy, balanced diet on a consistent basis. But what happens when we are eating the best we can and still are not reaping the full benefits, either in our daily lives or at the box? The answer may lie within… literally inside our stomachs.

What Are Digestive Enzymes?

Dr. Tim Gerstmar of Aspire Natural Health breaks down what digestive enzymes are and why we should care about them.

We eat food, but our digestive system doesn’t absorb food, it absorbs nutrients.  Food has to be broken down from things like steak and broccoli into its nutrient pieces: amino acids (from proteins), fatty acids and cholesterol (from fats), and simple sugars (from carbohydrates), as well as vitamins, minerals, and a variety of other plant and animal compounds. Digestive enzymes, primarily produced* in the pancreas and small intestine, break down our food into nutrients so that our bodies can absorb them.

*They’re also made in saliva glands and stomach, but we’re not going to focus on those here.

If we don’t have enough digestive enzymes, we can’t break down our food—which means even though we’re eating well, we aren’t absorbing all that good nutrition.

That makes sense. Now what would prevent your own digestive enzymes from working properly?

  • Low-grade inflammation in the digestive tract (which can be caused by “food allergies,” intestinal permeability, dysbiosis, parasitic infection, etc.) can lead to deficiencies in digestive enzymes.
  • Aging has been associated with decreased digestive function, though I personally wonder if this is a result of aging, or aging badly.
  • Low stomach acid—we’ll talk about this more in a future article, but if you have low stomach acid, it’s likely that you won’t have adequate digestive enzymes either.
  • Chronic stress. This is the most common reason for digestive enzyme problems. Our body has two modes: sympathetic “fight or flight,” and parasympathetic “rest and digest.” When we’re in “fight or flight” mode, digestive is given a very low priority, which means digestive function (including digestive enzyme output) is dialed down.  Chronic stress= constant “fight of flight” mode = impaired digestive enzyme output.

Read the rest of this great primer on digestive enzymes here.

Does This Have Anything to Do with Heartburn?

Digestive enzymes help us actually absorb the nutrients in the food we eat. Check. But if digestive enzymes are doing their job, then why would anyone have to experience hearburn?

Chronic heartburn, often referred to as GERD (gastroesophogeal reflux disease), is 

when someone suffers from a bout of heartburn, acid in the stomach essentially rises into the esophagus following a spontaneous lapse of the lower esophageal sphincter. Although the stomach lining can inherently withstand the caustic digestive acid, the esophagus has no such protection.

So what would cause stomach acid to rise?

When we eat a high carbohydrate diet, our digestive systems can become overloaded with their breakdown. (Remember, of course, that our systems aren’t evolutionarily designed to consistently handle the common 250-350 grams of carbs per day). The malabsorption of carbohydrates in the small intestine (the seat of many digestive ills) can result in a damaging overgrowth of bacteria. As anyone who’s suffered from digestive bloating knows, gas is created in the process and can be excessive when something is awry. According to Robillard’s theory, the gas “pressurizes the upper digestive system,” which sets in motion the reflux mechanism. Robillard, a long-term GERD sufferer himself, reports being fully cured by adopting a low glycemic diet.

For a more comprehensive look at solutions to this condition, read the full article here.

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