In 2014, the United States Department of Health and Human Services reported that 70 million adult Americans experience chronic digestive distress, though consumer surveys reveal even higher numbers.

For digestion to occur, our bodies add digestive enzymes at multiple locations throughout the gastrointestinal tract (GI) as saliva, stomach acid, pancreatic juice and intestinal secretions.  Their role is to act as a catalyst in breaking down the bulk we eat into smaller pieces, from food into large particles, on into smaller particles, down to a molecular level, which are more easily absorbed.

While indigestion has always been an issue, for a long time experts thought it to be a byproduct of poor eating habits.  Professionals have now begun to discover that a number of these afflictions which can be linked to the malabsorption of nutrients are also connected to digestive enzyme issues.

Digestion Doesn’t Just Happen in the Stomach

While we often compare how you fuel your body to how you fuel a performance car, unlike in a vehicle, our fuel comes from multiple materials, each in various states (raw, cooked, coarse, or pureed) and many shapes and sizes. For ingestion to occur it must all become (relatively) uniform so our digestion starts in the mouth where we add our first digestive enzymes in saliva (salivary amylase) during mastication (chewing). Remember how your Mom told you to chew your food properly? She was right!  Chewing your food starts the breakdown and taking time to chew it thoroughly makes things go more smoothly. It actually turns your mouthful into a bolus (a smaller smooth ball) where saliva has started the work of breaking down the food.

Woman Eating Salad

The shape and lubrication helps it to go down the gullet.  NOTE:  Taking time to chew thoroughly makes digestion easier, but also helps you pace your meal and can help you eat less, aiding weight management. ‘Fast Food’ is a huge negative for our health as most of it is poor quality nutrition and eating so quickly does not allow our body to respond and let us know when it has had enough.

Our food travels through the esophagus to the stomach where the parietal cells of the stomach are triggered into releasing acids, pepsin and other enzymes, including gastric amylase, where the partially digested food is turned into chyme (a semi-liquid mass of partly digested food). The acids also neutralize the salivary amylase, allowing gastric amylase to take over.

The digestive slurry continues into the pancreas, which releases hormones, bicarbonate and produces bile salts (cholic and chenodeoxycholic acids combined with the amino acids glycine or taurine) and numerous pancreatic enzymes lipase, trypsin, amylase and nuclease.  Bile salts break down fats in food to enable the lipase enzyme to reduce further. The bicarbonate changes the acidity of the chyme from acid to alkaline.  This has the effect of allowing the enzymes to degrade food, but also allows bacteria not capable of surviving in the acidic environment of the stomach to continue working.

At this point, most of the work is complete, or at least it is for people who do not suffer from digestive enzyme insufficiency. For them, supplementation is necessary to help the process.

The pancreas delivers the digestive juice to the small intestine through small tubes called ducts. The chyme is pushed into the duodenum (the first and shortest segment of upper small intestine), where the acid levels cause the release of a hormone called secretin.  Many processes occur in the duodenum: amino acids are extracted from the proteins, fatty acids and cholesterol from fats, and simple sugars from carbohydrates. Nuclease splits the nucleic acids essential for DNA into nucleotides. Macronutrients and micronutrients are broken down into molecules small enough to pass into the bloodstream.  The small intestine absorbs most of the nutrients in your food, and your circulatory system passes them on to other parts of your body to store or use.

The blood carries simple sugars, amino acids, glycerol, and some vitamins and salts to the liver. Your liver stores, processes, and delivers nutrients to the rest of your body when needed.

The large intestine, moves water from your GI tract into your bloodstream. Bacteria in the large intestine helps break down remaining nutrients and make vitamin K. The waste products of digestion, including parts of food that are still too large, are passed from the body.

Though some of the detail we are providing may seem a bit technical or maybe even boring, if you are struggling with digestion issues, understanding enzymes and how they work is going to help you determine the best solution for you. In our last post in this "understanding digestive enzymes" series we will cover the details around "who needs digestive enzymes".

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