We have all heard “you are what you eat”. And, the even more true “you are what you digest and absorb”. In order for digestion and absorption to take place the body secretes digestive enzymes to assist in the process of breaking down food and delivering the nutrients to our system. When this process is impaired the result is a long list of symptoms you may not even relate to your bloated belly.
Symptoms of low digestive enzymes:
- Bloating and gas
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- Feeling full all of the time
- Steatorrhea (fatty stools) and difficulty when eating fats and animal protein
- Low mental and emotional function
- General pain and inflammation
Enzymes are present throughout the body for many of our vital functions and just like any system they require enough energy and nourishment to be stimulated in order to function properly. And no system is any more important than the other. But, if your digestive enzymes are low and you are not getting the nutrients (aka energy) your body needs then enzyme activity- among many other functions- is impaired through every other system. Thus the list of “non-belly” related symptoms. This is where is gets complicated. Understanding the root cause of your digestive enzyme deficiency, and which digestive enzymes you are low in exactly, is vital to understanding your best plan of attack.
Before we get into how to fix it all (I know- you just want answers and you want them now) you must understand the basics of digestive enzymes. This is a very complex system but we will just look at the simple elements:
The Mouth: Digestion begins in the mouth (well the eyes see, the nose smells and the brain says “yum”). Your salivary glands produce amylase- also called ptyalin- to help break down starches and complex carbs into simple sugars. In fact some research shows that over consumption of carbs, which is what a diet of processed foods consists mostly of, can lead to a sort of amylase resistance. This will cause these large carb/starch molecules to hit your system and cause upset.
Some fat digestion begins in the mouth as linguinal lipase is released. There is also an enzyme released called R-factor (short name) that assists the breakdown of B-12 from its protein source so that it can be carried safely through the stomach and into the small intestine. B-12 deficiency has also been linked to many health issues- could low enzymes be a possible contributor?
It is believed that the deficiency of amylase makes one susceptible to inflammation, skin rashes and allergies. If one’s body is deficient in protease enzymes, that is, the enzymes that convert protein into amino acids, one might experience mood swings, irritability, or anxiety.
The Stomach: The stomach produces gastric enzymes and acid. You WANT stomach acid (read more here). The main gastric enzyme pepsin begins break down of all proteins. Hydrochloric acid (HCL) helps initiate proper levels of gastric enzymes but mostly is a defender against all of the bacteria we ingest with our delicious steak. Gastric lipase jumps in to further break down fats before the pancreas takes over. There are many other gastric enzymes that churn and burn our food but, again, just painting a picture.
The Pancreas: The source of many highs and lows- ins and outs. It is an endocrine and exocrine gland regulating blood sugar and secreting digestive enzymes. The numerous enzymes present in pancreatic juices are mostly stimulated once food has left the stomach. All of these enzymes- too many to name- are responsible for stimulating bio feedback loops to that initiate bile from the gallbladder, gastric (stomach) emptying rates so that acid does not dump into your small intestine and further breakdown of the food into nutrients to be carried into the small intestine for absorption.
The Small Intestine: This is where the truth of you are what you absorb happens. Further bile stimulation is produced by CCK enzyme (as in the pancreas). Sugar specific enzymes are responsible for carrying the tiny molecules safely into your blood stream. You are mostly all familiar with lactase as it is the reason behind the large population of people worldwide who cannot digest/absorb lactose (dairy sugars). Lactase is a “brush border” enzyme and is only present in some populations and declines with age. Another very important enzyme (some call it a hormone) that the small intestine produces is motilin- for motility. It signals your intestinal tract to keep things moving so that your behind keeps moving- if you know what I mean.
Whew- and that was only a tiny peak. You can easily see that if you lack in the ability to produce the necessary digestive enzymes in any part of this process you could end up not only with the symptoms listed above, but the unseen symptoms of low gallbladder function, B-12 deficiency and a slow moving gut to name a few.
Now for some answers, what you can do and my “opinion” on digestive enzyme supplementation…
Why Do I Have Low Digestive Enzymes?
You know this of course but it needs to be mentioned constantly as I still see highly intelligent people- such as you- eating highly processed foods and living on coffee (you know it isn’t super great for you). The body responds to macro and micronutrients for stimulation of all functions. The additives in food alone can create enzymatic chaos as the body tries to figure out how and what to stimulate. This eventually leaves large particles of “food” flooding into your system unrecognized causing all sorts of harm.
Ok, so maybe you eat a pretty healthy diet. So what is the answer for that!? This is my favorite area to dive into as I am seeing this more and more with my clients. Back to the body responding to proper nutrients for proper functioning. If you feel you are eating a healthy balanced and sufficient diet ask yourself these questions
- Have you ruled out underlying food sensitivities? Gluten, sugar (of course), dairy, soy and a carbohydrate rich diet can be a culprit even if you are cooking it all yourself. And, some foods are a bit more difficult to digest (like beans).
- Have you recently switched to a more “paleo” type diet or been on any sort of recent dietary plan? Your intentions are good and necessary for long term health but your body may not be ready for the sudden overhaul.
- Are you eating enough? Now this is a vicious cycle. You don’t want to eat too much as you have bad belly but if you don’t eat enough your body is under nourished.
- Are you eating too often or not often enough? This is tricky as you want to maintain your energy and blood sugar but not constantly over stimulate your digestive system as can happen with constant snacking.
If you have ruled out number one and the other questions are a big blurr but resonate with you then this brings me to the REAL culprit to digestive enzyme deficiency.
Yes, stress gets deemed the cause for most every imbalance today and it should. Stress draws vital energy from our systems. Stress creates cellular chaos. Stress can come from every direction- mental, physical and emotional. Here are some scenarios explaining the above questions…
So, you work, run, juggle, the kids, sleep 6 hours a night and live on a “less is more” diet plan. You are thin but tired, bloated and foggy -and now actually puffy and not so thin. You are NOT fueling your body for your demands. The body says “stress and famine” and reduces its digestive enzyme output preparing for energy conservation= low enzymes.
You decide to eat more, fuel your body differently with more protein, less carbs and you are committed to feeling more energized. But, whoa, your system has been living on greens and grains and coffee. So, when that chicken breast or steak land in your belly your body has been deplete for so long that you can’t keep up with the new demands. Especially if you are still burning your body on high and not getting enough rest. Thus, adding more stress to your system, digestive dysfunction and keeping that stress cycle going= low enzyme production.
Really the above examples point to underlying adrenal fatigue which is when your body’s ability to handle stress and maintain energy is depleted. Your body’s ability to rest and digest has almost burned out in this state. So, even when you make better nourishment choices you have to be wise as to how you go about fueling your body so that it can rebuild over time.
How to kick start you digestive enzymes.
REST (obviously): Rebuilding your energy management system (your adrenals) takes time and commitment and I HIGHLY recommend getting guidance on this. Your life kind of depends on it.
Proper Diet: Remove all processed foods and limit or omit coffee and stimulants. You will want to make sure to start slow with very balanced meals consisting of all macronutrients. You may not be able to combine them all in one meal yet so getting a variety through the day will be key. You may need to eat small and frequent to start. Again, seeking help to identify where you are currently and a plan of attack is key to success.
Eat Properly: So many of us wolf down our food not allowing that first stage of digestive salivary enzymes to work effectively. Chew, breath, swallow, and repeat.
Vinegar and Lemon: A little bit of either can help your acid levels and enzymes. This isn’t going to greatly help really deplete systems but it is healthy regardless. Raw apple cider vinegar is the best and really the only one I would use.
Digestive Enzyme Supplementation: When I first began to address my digestive complaints I was guided by a brilliant nutritionist to add in digestive enzymes and HCL. It helped tremendously as it does so many. My favorite product is called Zymemax by Advanced Naturals** as it combines the enzymes and the acid so you don’t have to take 2 different products- its kinda awesome. If fat digestion is an issue then you may want to add in bile support and Beta TCP Biotics Research** is a great product. However, this is NOT your easy way out. Enzyme replacement should only be used as a kick start so that your body can begin to repair and re- nourish itself. Once you do your amazing hard work at fixing your fatigue and stress, your body will feel supported and begin to produce enzymes on its own. That’s the plan anyways.
Abdominal Massage: Well it would be irresponsible of me not to mention this as I support digestive wellness almost every day through hands on belly work. How this can help with boosting your enzymes really ties into how it greatly helps relieve constrictions and stress. When the blood flow is improved to your vital digestive organs they have more room to work properly. And, it feels amazing.
Get a little guidance… “Learn to Listen to Your Gut”
**Zymemax by Advanced Naturals (Enter code: Jamie for 10% off and Free shipping on purchases over $35)
- Lipski,E. Digestive Wellness. 2012, McGraw- Hill
- Smita, P. “Digestive Enzyme Deficiency” [article]. September 29, 2011
- Wikipedia. Digestive Enzymes