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Digestive enzymes: what they are and where they are

Digestive enzymes: what they are and where they are

by in IAFSTORE blog - Insights

last updated: May 25, 2015

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When it comes to the fundamental importance of intestinal microbiota for overall health, blame is often ascribed to a lack of digestive enzymes, as they play a key role in ensuring proper digestion and efficient absorption.

The phrase "we are what we eat", which we often read or hear, has now become a cliche of dogmatic importance.

We often hear "I eat a tiny bit and I get fat", or "as soon as I touch a carbohydrate I blow up", "I absorb too much" and other similar phrases.

Beyond the instances of genuine metabolic-hormonal disorders, it would be good to know how, what and how much these people really eat, but sometimes disorders can be an alarm signal indicating a real enzyme deficiency.

The purpose of these articles is to shed light on a world that is battered with confusing and/or corrupted information. First of all, leaving aside pathological cases - I stress the term pathological - which should be addressed by competent specialists, the phrase "we are what we eat" is a false belief often used to justify bad eating habits.

In the interest of scientific correctness, we should say that we are "what we digest", because if we digest effectively then we absorb nutrients properly.

This premise could lead us to various topics, such as allergies, various gastrointestinal disorders and talk of malabsorption, referring back to previous arguments about the fundamental importance of intestinal microbiota for overall health.

Nowadays, the incidence of this type of disorders is increasing, and a lack of digestive enzymes if often blamed, as their role is key for ensuring proper digestion and efficient absorption.

What are digestive enzymes?

The role of digestive enzymes is mainly to act as catalysts for specific reactions that are fundamental to our organisms.

Essentially, they help to break down large molecules into smaller portions so they are absorbed more easily and allow the body to survive.

The duodenum (the first, shorter portion of the small intestine) is a rather "busy" area where the "extracts" from the first digestive process arrive from the stomach, and where we find the amino acids derived from proteins, fatty acids, cholesterol from simple fats and sugars from carbohydrates.

All the macronutrients are reduced to smaller molecules so they can be transported into the blood stream and provide fuel for the metabolism.

So what are these enzymes and what do they do? Enzymes are protein molecules that work by combining with a specific substance to transform it into a different substance.

|||UNTRANSLATED_CONTENT_START|||Li troviamo in vari distretti dell'apparato gastrointestinale, dalla saliva, allo stomaco, nel pancreas e nell'intestino tenue.|||UNTRANSLATED_CONTENT_END|||


The pancreas produces many digestive enzymes

Each of them has a specific role: some break down fat, some are specialised in breaking down carbohydrates and some affect proteins. Each of them has a specific function, and a lack of any of them can create "simple" problems (common lactose intolerance) or serious diseases (such as phenylketonuria).

  • Aminopeptidase: breaks peptides down into amino acids;
  • Lactase: converts lactose into glucose;
  • Cholecystokinin: helps the digestion of fats and proteins;
  • Sucrase: converts sucrose into monosaccharides and disaccharides;
  • Maltase: converts maltose into glucose;
  • Isomaltase: converts isomaltose.

The pancreatic enzymes are also important, and they specifically affect fats and amino acids:

  • Lipase: convert triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerophosphates;
  • Amylase: converts carbohydrates into simple sugars;
  • Elastase: breaks down elastin;
  • Trypsin: converts protein into amino acids;
  • Chymotrypsin: converts protein into amino acids;
  • Nuclease: converts nucleic acids into nucleotides and nucleosides;
  • Phosphorylase: converts phospholipids into fatty acids.

Digestive enzymes are not simply useful and beneficial, they're essential!

They digest food to produce the amino acids, fatty acids and cholesterol, simple sugars and nucleic acids that help in the formation of DNA.

The digestive process is divided into six phases, starting from chewing then leading into a cascade of mechanisms and secretions with a domino effect:

  1. Salivary amylase is the first enzyme in the mouth that helps food disintegrate into its component molecules;
  2. the parietal cells in the stomach release acids, pepsin and various enzymes including gastric amylase, facilitating partial digestion to produce chyme (semi-fluid semi-digested mass);
  3. the acids also neutralise the effect of the salivary amylase by promoting the intervention of gastric amylase;
  4. after about an hour, the chyme is pushed into the duodenum, where the acidity acquired in the stomach stimulates the release of the hormone secretin;
  5. the pancreas releases hormones, bicarbonate, bile and numerous pancreatic enzymes, including lipase, trypsin, amylase and nucleases.
  6. thanks to the bicarbonate, our beloved "perfect" machine changes the acidity of the chyme into an alkaline form, not only allowing better degradation of foods but also creating a hostile environment for any bacteria that may have survived the passage from the stomach.

This process of synthesis can take place effectively and fluidly if the enzyme system is healthy, otherwise supplementation becomes necessary.


Lipase: a pancreatic enzyme that converts triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerophosphates

Who should take digestive enzymes?

It all depends on the basis of our diets (assuming we don't have pathological conditions), but given what we often find on our plates nowadays, some "extra" help is not to be discouraged. More specifically:

Digestive problems

|||UNTRANSLATED_CONTENT_START|||In caso di disturbi digestivi come riflusso acido, gas, meteorismo, gonfiori, sindrome del colon irritabile, morbo di Crohn, colite ulcerosa, diverticoli, malassorbimento, diarrea, costipazione, gli enzimi possono essere di aiuto.
Questi alleggeriscono sensibilmente lo stress dello stomaco, pancreas, fegato, cistifellea e intestino tenue nel digerire proteine, amidacei e grassi.|||UNTRANSLATED_CONTENT_END|||

Age-related problems

As time passes, we come to be affected by many "flaws", including the gastric environment becoming more alkaline.

Although the word is highly "appreciated" at the moment, when it comes to stomach activity it becomes a limit for digestion, especially for that of the protein, and the subsequent physiological torrent of signals relating to hormonal release mechanisms. As we get older, acid reflux problems can result from low stomach acid levels or a growing enzyme deficiency.


The condition of hypochlorhydria, or low acidity in the gastric juices , affects one of our first lines of defence, specifically the high acidity levels in the stomach, which crushes any microbial invasion under normal conditions rather than allowing pathogenic microbes such as Candida yeast and Helicobacter pylori to proliferate.

It is important to note that a stomach with the right degree of acidity only digests proteins, but carbohydrates ferment when the acidity in the stomach is too low, which produces gas because of regurgitation.

This problem is not only found among the elderly, but also in younger patients.

In these cases, supplements are often found to be effective.


Papaya, a source of papain

Liver problems

It can often happen that people with liver disorders also suffer from a parallel enzyme deficiency. More of the most common conditions is known as a deficiency of alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This is a genetic disorder that affects one person in a thousand five hundred worldwide.
Then there are other diseases that do not seem to be related to enzyme deficiencies but which would benefit from attention:

  • Crohn's disease;
  • iron or vitamin B12 deficiency;
  • vitamin D deficiency;
  • vitamin A deficiency

We can then understand those who with a high-calorie diet, where good digestion and efficient absorption are always very busy and stressed, meaning these people often suffer from enzyme deficiencies.

For example, take a bodybuilder who is trying to bulk up but who often experiences bloating, fermentation and even indigestion and diarrhoea. This is caused by various obvious issues, such as an excess of carbohydrates in relation to their actual capacity to absorb them, poor digestion of animal proteins, or excessive difficulty in processing fats.

In such cases, supplementing digestive enzymes just before a meal (possibly three times a day) significantly improves the digestion and absorption situation, dramatically decreasing the unpleasant symptoms.
However, after seeing that enzyme deficiency occurs in different situations and is often (or seems) asymptomatic, there are some indicators that signal a lack for various reasons. Let's look at the main ones:

  • type of faeces: if the faeces are clear and floating (fat floats), it may indicate that the pancreatic enzyme production system is inefficient. (Although this evidence is not very pleasant, faeces does "speak" to us).
  • Gastrointestinal problems: one very frequent indicator is the swelling of the stomach, or diarrhoea shortly after eating (or drinking milk, for example). Flatulence and indigestion are also indicative of a hypothetical enzyme deficiency (see the common lactose or infamous gluten intolerances).


Pineapple, source of bromelain

Benefits of taking digestive enzymes

What are the benefits of the presence of digestive enzymes? The answer is simple.
Without them, we cannot digest food! With this, there are multiple reasons why people should consider the need to take digestive enzymes:

  • help preventing stress in the gastrointestinal system;
  • help digesting macromolecules that are difficult to break down, such as certain proteins, gluten, casein and lactose;
  • help with gastric reflux and irritable bowel syndrome symptoms;
  • improved nutrient absorption;
  • fighting enzyme inhibitors or "anti-nutrients" naturally present in foods such as peanuts, wheat germ, egg whites, nuts, seeds, legumes and potatoes.

What are the best products and sources

  • fruit derivatives: see pineapple (bromelain) and papaya (papain);
  • animal sources: pancreatin;
  • plant and fungi derivatives: many probiotics.

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