If you look up treatments for digestive problems you will often find that digestive enzymes are one of the top 2 or 3 recommendations to help you treat your digestive issues. But do we really need them, doesn’t our body make enough digestive enzymes by itself?
Like with most questions relating to health there is no one size fits all and who needs digestive enzymes is going to vary from person to person, and just because you may need them now does not mean that you will need them forever.
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The food that we eat needs to be broken down into nutrients that we can absorb and this is partly the responsibility of the digestive enzymes. If you eat a delicious salmon with a variety of salad greens then this meal needs to be broken down into amino acids, fatty acids, cholesterol, simple sugars like glucose, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients which can be absorbed in your small intestine.
We eat food but we absorb nutrients!
The process of absorption starts in the mouth when we chew our food (ideally very well), continues in the stomach where it is important to have enough stomach acid and pepsin to break down the food, so that the nutrients can be absorbed in the small intestine.
The next step is the pancreas releases digestive enzymes into the small intestine, this will include proteases to break down protein into amino acids, lipase to break down fats into fatty acids and amylase to break down carbohydrates into simple sugars like glucose and fructose.
Major causes of low digestive enzymes can be serous conditions like pancreatitis, celiac disease and Crohn’s disease, these can all lead to a major problem with your digestive enzymes and absorption of nutrients, but there are many other more common reasons to have low digestive enzymes.
Common cause of low digestive enzymes which leads to poor absorption of the nutrients that you are eating can include stress and inflammation, and even as we age our digestive enzyme levels decrease.
There are many different symptoms caused by low digestive enzymes, and it is possible to have issues absorbing nutrients due to low digestive enzymes but not experience digestive symptoms.
One option if you suspect that you may have low digestive enzymes is to supplement with digestive enzymes and see if your symptoms improve, however this may not address the underlying cause of why you have low digestive enzymes.
The best way to test how much pancreatic digestive enzymes you are producing is with a comprehensive stool analysis, this will measure your levels of pancreatic elastase so that you will know whether you need to supplement with digestive enzymes or if your symptoms are caused by other factors.
Another advantage in doing a CDSA or G.I Map stool test is that you will be able to identify other factors like bacterial infections, parasites, candida and inflammation that maybe the underlying cause behind your low digestive enzymes!
Testing helps to take out the guess work and will help with long term health improvement.
While supplements will help to provide the necessary digestive enzymes there are other diet and lifestyle changes that can be made to help stimulate your own body’s production of digestive enzymes.
Chew your food – This might seem like such a basic (and boring) suggestion yet it is something that many people forget in this fast paced world, or while they eat their meals in front of a screen. Chewing your food also stimulates messages from your brain to your stomach to start producing stomach acid and pepsin, and this stimulates your pancreas to start producing digestive enzymes
Reduce stress – This is easier said than done but there are a couple of simple breathing and meditation techniques that you can do for a few minutes a day to help reduce your “flight or fight” response, and this will enable your digestion to work more efficiently. This is not an instant quick fix, however if you persevere the results will come. Stress can be assessed with the DUTCH hormone test that measures adrenal and sex hormones
Food intolerances – This can vary from person to person but some of the common ones are gluten, dairy, fructose and eliminating these for a few weeks can help to identify whether they are causing inflammation and affecting your digestive enzymes. There can be other food triggers as well but eliminating the commons ones is a good place to start.
Medications – A number of common medications like antibiotics, steroids and antacid medications like proton pump inhibitors which are one of the most commonly prescribed drugs for acid reflux. If you are on a prescribed medication I am not suggesting that you suddenly stop but many of these drugs are just addressing symptoms and not treating the underlying cause, if you address the cause then you eventually will not need the medications.
Diet – This is a key to addressing any health condition, you need to eat a nutrient dense diet to provide the key nutrients that your body needs to produce digestive enzymes. Without the proper building blocks to produce stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes you body will not be able to make enough by itself.
It is best to take digestive enzymes with meals, I recommend starting out with one capsule with each meal and only if necessary increasing to two capsules. It does not really matter if you take the enzymes before or after meals, as long as you take them within about 30 minutes of eating they should be effective.
It is important to use good quality brands like Thorne Research, Metagenics or Jarrow, you pay for what you get so I would avoid any cheap quality brands. One of the best digestive enzyme supplements available is Enzymedica – Digest Gold as it contains a wide variety of enzymes that work at different pH levels, it is available from Amazon or Iherb
The steps to optimize your digestion and absorption of nutrients are the following
1. Chew your food well to stimulate the digestion process
2. Eat in a relaxed environment and reduce stress as much as possible
3. Try a good quality digestive enzyme to improve your absorption of key nutrients
4. Do a comprehensive stool analysis to asses your pancreatic elastase levels to see if a lack of enzymes is the cause of your digestion issues, or if there is another underlying digestion issue.
At Planet Naturopath we can organize comprehensive stool tests and SIBO test kits to be sent to you wherever you live in the world, to help you address the underlying cause of your health issues. Once we get the results we will set up a consultation via video or phone to help you with a treatment plan.
Michael is head consultant at Planet Naturopath - Functional Medicine and Nutrition Solutions.
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