What are some of your favorite foods? We all know that we should be watching our waistlines and trying to eat healthy, but we often do not consider the mechanics of how we use what we consume.
Your digestive system is your body's engine, turning food into fuel and energy by breaking down complex proteins, fats and carbohydrates into smaller, simpler and more usable forms. Digestion starts in your mouth when you chew and swallow, continues through your stomach and finishes in your small intestines. Your body produces and uses digestive enzymes to help digest the food you eat, making it small enough to be absorbed by your small intestine and travel to your bloodstream, allowing you to absorb and use the nutrients, vitamins and minerals your body needs.
You obtain enzymes both externally from the food that you eat (enzymes from uncooked and unprocessed food) and internally from your digestive system (known as digestive enzymes). These digestive enzymes are secreted from cells lining the inner surface of your mouth, stomach and small intestine. In addition, the liver, gallbladder, and the pancreas also produce enzymes and substances to aid digestion in your small intestine.
Raw food naturally contains enzymes that help you digest your food. These food-based enzymes are extremely sensitive to very high or low temperatures, as well as intense processing conditions. If you take a virtual tour of what you consume in a week, you quickly realize that the typical North American diet consists mainly of heavily processed food containing no active enzymes. To compensate for the loss of enzymes in your food, your body needs to use valuable internal digestive enzymes. This means that digesting processed food stresses your body and takes more energy than the digestion of raw food.
You also cannot assume that your digestive system is in top shape 100% of the time. A lack of sleep, as well as stress, alcohol and antibiotics can disrupt your digestive system and leave you feeling bloated, sluggish and uncomfortable. In addition, consumption of processed, fast foods put a greater strain on your digestive system and causes enlargement of digestive organs. When this happens, your body has less energy to fight off infections and will not be able to keep your immune system as strong.
Enzyme supplementation is critical in the management of digestive conditions such as poor digestion, lactose non-persistence (lactose intolerance), exocrine pancreatic insufficiency and cystic fibrosis. The intake of digestive enzymes can help make digestion easier and break down food to make it small enough for absorption. The big conundrum is whether everyone's digestive system would benefit from supplementing with digestive enzymes. Personally, I think that it can only assist your body and will not harm you. Distinct forms of food require specific enzymes. For example, proteases digest proteins, lipases break down fats or lipids, lactases help digest lactose in dairy products, amylases break down starches, and cellulases break down fiber.
Enzyme supplements are extracted from plants or bacteria (vegan enzymes), or from the organs of pigs and cows (animal-derived enzymes). There are several advantages to using the vegan enzymes versus the animal-derived enzymes. The first obvious reason is that vegan enzymes are completely free of animal products or by-products so everyone can use them. In addition, vegan enzymes work in all stages of digestion and also have enzymatic activity across a broader pH range, temperature and substrate specificity.
In contrast, the animal-derived enzymes are only active in the later stages of digestion, only work at a specific pH range and will be destroyed at low pH (like in the stomach) unless enteric coated. You can customize your digestive enzymes when they are derived from plant or microbial sources whereas pancreatic enzymes are limited to a predetermined ratio of proteases (proteins), amylases (carbohydrates), and lipases (fats).
Eating to Improve Health
The healthier you live your life, the less stress there is on your digestive system. Here are some easy things everyone can do to improve their health:
- Make sure you eat a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains (high in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber).
- Eat more fiber – it will give your body many health benefits (reduces your risk of digestive disorders, prevents constipation, lowers your cholesterol, and aids in natural weight loss).
- Reduce the amount of saturated fat, salt and sugar (all types of sugar) that you eat each day.
- Maintain the health of your colon by taking probiotics each day to help balance the pH of your colon and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Minimize the use of drugs and antibiotics by using natural remedies.
- Drink plenty of water to cleanse your body and prevent dehydration.
- Supplement your diet with digestive enzymes to get the highest possible benefit from food. However, do not kid yourself! Just supplementing with digestive enzymes will not make up for eating junk food or heavily processed food.
- Once in a while, put yourself first and set aside some time for regular exercise. It will offer you a healthy outlet and release endorphins, which will help you feel good and remove the stress from your life.
Integrating small changes in your life can help preserve good health and fight off any illness. Besides, we want to be able to enjoy that piece of chocolate cake every now and again!
Image: Daniela Vladimirova