What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestion is one of the most important functions of the body. It is the process whereby food is turned into nourishment to support the various cell functions involved in growth, development, and maintenance of health. The role of digestive enzymes in the body, therefore, is vital, since these are the substances that facilitate the breakdown of food into useful building blocks for bodily functions.
What are Digestive Enzymes?
To accomplish digestion food is first mechanically broken into smaller pieces in the mouth by chewing and grinding. At the same time, enzymes found in the mouth such as amylase and lipase are released to further break the food down.
When food is swallowed and travels through the esophagus, stomach, and small intestines, it undergoes further mechanical and chemical digestion which is accomplished by the grinding and churning actions of these organs and by the digestive enzymes that break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into simpler substances.
Aside from the digestive enzymes found in the gastrointestinal tract, the pancreas secretes pancreatic juices (which contain enzymes) into the small intestine to help in the process of digestion.
Digestive enzymes are classified according to the type of substances they break down. Here are some examples:
- Lipases break down fat into three fatty acids and glycerol
- Proteases and peptidases break down proteins into peptides and amino acids
- Carbohydrates break down carbohydrates into glucose
- Cellulase digests cellulose and other plant products
Effects of Aging and Disease on Digestion
As people age the production of digestive enzymes decreases. This can lead to feelings of indigestion, gas and bloating, and more serious consequences such as vitamin deficiencies and malnutrition. Age-related decline in enzymatic digestion can also cause weakening of the immune system and can affect overall health
How to Use Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes can be taken orally with meals and snacks. Dosages vary and are based on factors like your diet, medical condition and response to therapy. Use the supplements regularly to obtain the most benefit.
Although there are other factors involved in the nutrition of older adults such as availability of good foods, the ability to chew properly, and other health concerns, the decline in production of digestive enzymes is a significant cause of malnutrition amongst this population.
For example, animal studies have shown that pancreatic amylase decreased by 41% in aging mice. A review of the literature in human subjects reveals a gradual decline in digestive enzyme output, including pepsin (from the stomach lining), protease, amylase, and lipase (secreted by the pancreas). The production of each gradually reduces after the age of 65, especially in women.
Recent studies have shown that there is a high prevalence of vitamin, mineral, and omega-3 fatty acid deficiency among the elderly. A deficiency in vitamin B12, which may lead to a serious condition called pernicious anemia, is particularly common among the elderly. A reduction in digestive enzymes may be a leading cause.
On top of these, other factors affect the nutritional status of aging adults such as lactose intolerance, chronic pancreatitis, atrophic gastritis, pancreatic insufficiency, diverticulosis and celiac disease. These conditions are associated with potential malabsorption of nutrients and/or malnutrition.
Given the serious consequences of inadequate nutrition, it is important to optimize digestive health. This can be achieved by supplementing with natural digestive enzymes, many of which are derived from plants.
Studies have shown that replacing the age-related loss of digestive enzymes by supplementation is a safe and effective way of restoring normal digestion and preventing malnutrition. In conjunction with a balanced and varied diet, digestive enzymes can play a key role in obtaining adequate nourishment, especially in older adults.
- Kiefer, D. Promoting Optimal Nutrition with Digestive Enzymes Life Extension Magazine.
- Greenberg RE, Holt PR. Influence of aging upon pancreatic digestive enzymes. Dig Dis Sci. 1986 Sep;31(9):970-7.