The Missing Link to Good Gut Health
(Hint: It’s Not Probiotics!)
by Carin Gorrell | Posted March 16th, 2018
Dealing with occasional digestive issues seems to be par for the human course. As many as 30% of us experience bloat, for instance, and it’s perfectly normal to pass gas 10-20 times a day.
But if gas, bloat, and other symptoms of indigestion seem to strike and linger after every meal, you might be falling short on a key component of the digestive process: Enzymes—the complex proteins that help us access the vital nutrients in food, says Dr. Bill Rawls, Medical Director of Vital Plan.
“Our bodies can’t absorb food, so we rely on enzymes to help break down food into smaller particles so the nutrients are easier to access,” explains Dr. Rawls. While we get some enzymes from our diet, we manufacture the majority of them—primarily in the pancreas, as well as the mouth, stomach, and small intestine. There are three types, and each one helps us break down a different set of nutrients:
- Proteolytic enzymes. These go by several names, including proteases, peptidases, and proteinases. Whatever you call them, they all do the same thing: Break the peptide bonds in dietary proteins so amino acids can be absorbed and used in the body to build muscle, skin, and hormones, and assist in just about every function in the body.
- Amylase enzymes. Amylases convert carbohydrates such as sugar and starch into usable energy. Our bodies produce some amylase and release it in saliva, where it initiates the digestive process. Amylase is also produced in the pancreas and released in the small intestine, to continue the work of digestion.
- Lipase enzymes. Found mostly in the gastrointestinal system (but also in the blood and fat tissues throughout the body), lipases break down lipids, or fats and oils, and promote heart health.
Though each of the three enzyme types have a different function, they’re not mutually exclusive: When you’re short on one, you’re generally short on all of them.
How can you know for sure, and what’s to blame? Keep reading to find out, plus discover what you can do if you want to restock your digestive enzyme stores.
How to Know if You’re Low
The telltale signs of low digestive enzyme levels are hard to miss — and relatively common, says Dr. Rawls. Consider this list:
- Significant gas and bloating after nearly every meal
- Food sitting heavy like a rock in your stomach
- Fullness after eating very little
- Undigested food in your stools
- Consistently floating stools
- Oily stools
If you experience any or all of the above, there’s a good chance your gut enzyme levels are falling short, says Dr. Rawls. Still not sure? There are a number of tests such as methane breath testing or stool analysis that can measure your digestive enzyme levels — but they’re expensive and typically unnecessary, says Dr. Rawls.
“In this case, your habits are usually the biggest contributor to your discomfort,” he explains. “Figure out what those disruptive habits are, correct those things, and you’ll likely go a long way to feeling better in a short period of time. Then, if you still have GI problems, talk to your doctor about other options.”
Fortunately, most enzyme-reducing habits are relatively simple to address. Get to know four of the most common ones, plus the simple steps you can take to support complete digestion and feel like yourself again.
4 Enzyme-Lowering Habits—and How to Reverse Them
Aging is one factor in the reduction of digestive enzyme levels, and while that’s not a “habit” we can change, research suggests that age-related decreases alone might not be enough to impact digestion. Which means if we address the enzyme-disrupting behaviors below that we do have control over, aging becomes a non-issue.
1. We inhale our food.
Okay, not literally. But we don’t chew our food much at all, in part because we’re often eating on the run, and also because modern food is so much softer than the roots, tubers, and leaves humankind used to subsist on.
“A bowl of pasta, breakfast cereal, rice — you don’t need to chew it at all, it just goes down,” says Dr. Rawls. “That’s a problem, because the chewing process is part of our inherent biological signal for digestion.”
The physical act of chewing tells the body to start producing enzymes and stomach acids. So the less time food spends in your mouth, the less time your gut has to churn out those digestive juices. Plus, carbohydrate digestion starts in the mouth, where amylase enzymes are released and start breaking carbs down into glucose molecules. The less chewing you do, the less amylase is produced — and the bigger the pieces of high-carb food that land in your gut.
All of this makes more work for the gut, so food sits longer, which can cause discomfort and poor digestion. Remnant starches are particularly problematic: They are food for unhealthy gut flora, which produce toxins and gas during digestion — and result in more flatulence, bloating, and poor elimination for you.
A better way: Assign more importance to mealtime. “We’re much less reverent about food than we used to be — it’s an afterthought,” says Dr. Rawls. “When I was growing up, we all sat together every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, contemplated the food, and talked while we were eating. Every meal was somewhat of an event, and as a result, we naturally ate more slowly.”
2. Our diets are enzyme-poor.
The typical modern-day diet is dominated by carbohydrates in the form of grains, beans, and processed foods, often with a fair amount of meat in the mix. The best food sources of digestive enzymes? Fresh fruits and vegetables, and fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
A better way: Step one is pretty obvious: eat more raw or lightly cooked (steamed) produce and fermented foods. “But if you’ve been eating a grain- and meat-heavy diet for a long time, your digestive processes are likely sluggish, and switching to an enzyme-rich diet might not be enough to reawaken your system at first,” says Dr. Rawls.
To help support your digestion and accelerate your results, he recommends taking a digestive enzyme supplement for two to three months after upgrading your diet. Be sure to choose one that represents all three enzymatic categories for broad spectrum coverage. Some good enzymes to look for:
- Lactase: An amylase that breaks down lactose, a sugar in dairy
- Alpha-d-galactosidase: Another amylase, it targets carbohydrates found in plant foods that can be difficult to digest, particularly legumes and cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, and broccoli.
- Papain and bromelain: two fruit-based proteolytic enzymes, found in papaya and pineapple, respectively
3. We love giant, ice-cold drinks.
For once it doesn’t matter if your beverage of choice is a 32-ounce soft drink or a giant bottle of ice water: Any chilled drink inhibits the enzymatic processes in the gut, says Dr. Rawls. “Plus, drinking large amounts of liquid with a meal dilutes digestive enzymes and neutralizes stomach acids,” he says.
A better way: Sip smaller beverages with meals, and ideally room temperature ones. If you’re worried about hydration, keep filling up on fruits and veggies: “They’re 70% percent water, which is released slowly as the food digests,” says Dr. Rawls. “Slow and steady is the proper way to hydrate, and it supports healthy digestion. Besides, our current obsession with always having a water bottle handy is likely leading to overhydration.”
4. We can’t cut ourselves a break.
In other words, we’re stressed — constantly. And stress has a nasty habit of stopping the digestive process cold. That’s because the human body is programmed to focus all its energy and resources on key functions when its under duress so it can run away fast, and producing digestive enzymes definitely doesn’t qualify as necessary during an all-out sprint.
A better way: This is probably the most difficult habit of all of them to overcome, since life can never be truly stress-free. But there’s a lot we can do to control how we manage stress, so learning which coping mechanisms work best for you is key.
For Dr. Rawls, that means maintaining a list of his top three stressors, and actively working to keep all the rest out of his conscious mind. “Every item on the list must be within my power to change, otherwise I know I need to let it go entirely,” he says. “And if a big problem starts to stagnate, that means it’s too big — it’s time to break it up into doable steps.”
This approach helps him feel in control and empowered to check stressors off his list. And on days it doesn’t work? “Meditation and yoga do the trick,” says Dr. Rawls.
While low digestive enzyme levels are an increasingly common problem, it doesn’t have to be the norm for you. Shifting your lifestyle habits to support healthy digestive processes can deliver noticeable benefits in as little as one month. Be diligent, and patient with yourself — remember, undue stress won’t do your gut any favors.