Everyone's Screaming "Gut Health"
Hello everybody, hey, hi, how ya dern? Good I hope. I’m sure many of you have been hearing (loudly) about gut health theses days and why it’s important for proper digestion, absorption of nutrients, cogntitive function and immune support.
I bet you’ve even heard gut health linked to things that seem very far removed from the gut…
Like cognitive development during infancy, how your microbiota can influence onset of obesity, and how the bacteria in your gut can be so revolutionary to your health that people are doing fecal transparents.
Wait, what? Yep – it’s been studied rather extensively. I’m new to this poo-in-a pill concept and first heard Dr. Steven Gundry speak about it on a podcast.
But I’m digressing away from the point of this article, so you can check out this article from Dr. Joseph Mercola: Fecal Transplant.
While the importance of gut health, bacteria and the overall microbiome has become increasingly clear over the last 10 years and I plan to discuss this extensively in the future, what we often overlook are Digestive Enzymes. The little guys responsible for speeding up chemical reactions in our body, especially those required for our digestive processes…
The Digestive System
Overview: Gut Health & Microbiome
The digestive system mechanically and chemically breaks down food into smaller components, handles absorption and uptake of nutrients from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract into either the blood or the lymph. All the nutrients found in foods – proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water – are made ready by the digestive system. And obviously, as we know, what comes in must go out so our digestive system is responsible for the breakdown and excretion of waste on the other end.
Digestion is facilitated primarily by the organs that make up the GI tract – mouth & salivary glands, esophagus, the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and the rectum – but there are several important accessory organs that help out too. Those are the Pancreas, Liver and Gallbladder.
Yet here is what many of us forget about our digestive system – not only does it carry out the functions of digestion and absorption – but it also plays a huge role in our immune system. Here’s how…
Our nutrition, or the inputs we choose to consume to stay alive, whether it’s food, supplements or any form of sustenance – it’s coming from the external environment. And we’re introducing bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms to our bodies through the inputs we take in from outside. The GI tract plays a crucial role in being a physical barrier to entry for these microorganisms that accompany the food we take in. The GI tract also produces a host of antibodies, lymphocytes and macrophages that are components and first line defense mechanisms of our immune system.
We also have our own gut bacteria, called “resident bacteria” that set up shop in, and call home, our GI tract. Especially in the large intestine, you find what is commonly called Microbiota or Microflora – these microorganisms live in our gut and are part of the body’s overall Microbiome, another buzzword lately. In Lehman’s terms, the Microbiome is the entire system of microorganisms that live throughout the body, not just in the GI tract.
Microbiome is massively important, especially in the gut. The healthy bacteria that live in our intestine (microbiota) help keep pathogenic bacteria under control, they aid in absorption by synthesizing nutrients, vitamins and short-chain fatty acids that produce energy for the cells of our large intestine.
My guess is, you’ve heard all that before with everyone screaming about “gut health” these days. And not to criticize, that’s for sure, as I’ll be writing about Gut Health as well, particularly some interesting findings around the correlation of gut health in infants to cognitive function and development, obesity, overall body type and chronic disease prevention. Exciting stuff. But there is another digestive system component and a few related topics worth considering that I want to cover in this post…
The Role of Enzymes (Visually)
The Forgotten Facilitators of Digestion
What is a Digestive Enzyme?
Digestive Enzymes are compounds that aid in the breakdown of our macronutrient inputs: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Specifically, these enzymes play a key role in speeding up chemical reactions – a process called catalysis that increases the speed at which a chemical reaction occurs with the help of another substance. Digestive enzymes play the role of the “catalyst” or the additional substance that helps bring together molecules and create more favorable environment for digestion. The chemical reactions that enzymes help out in the digestive process are called hydrolysis reactions, which break down a compound by adding water (H20). So without digestive enzymes, the process would be much slower with water acting alone. In the slide presentation below you can see a visual representation of this processing using the disaccharide (two simple sugars bonded together) called Sucrose which we know as table sugar.
Produced in the salivary glands, stomach, pancreas and small intestine – the bulk of our digestive enzymes are synthesized by the pancreas and small intestine – and it’s important to note that we have specific enzymes for each macronutrient, meaning the enzymes which facilitates (hydrolyzes) the digestion of a sugar like sucrose (the enzyme is sucrase) is useless for digesting lactose (we’d need the enzyme lactase). These enzymes fall into the following buckets, mapping to the macronutrients they’re responsible for hydrolyzing:
- Amylases catalyze (hydrolyze) Carbohydrates; examples include maltase, lactase, sucrase
- Lipases catalyze (hydrolyze) Fats; examples include
- Proteases catalyze (hydrolyze) Proteins; examples include
3 Digestive Enzyme Considerations
Ok so we’ve refreshed our memory when it comes to the important role digestive enzymes play. Now what? Well, there are a number of key considerations that are often overlooked when it comes to digestive enzymes…
No I'm not Your Mom, But Chew Your Food
I’m someone who constantly has to remind myself (or be reminded) to slow down when I eat. Probably a nervous habit, or just because I was a mad man as a kid. So that was my mother’s job back then, to remind me to slow down. But here’s a little bit of the science behind it…
Digestion starts in the mouth. Mechanically, we use our jaw and teeth to break down food. But you already know that. Chemically, this actually our first interaction with enzymes. Saliva produced in the mouth consists of a variety of important substances, and introduces us to Lysozymes and Amylases. The former are enzymes designed to kill bacteria and the latter are enzymes which break down starches into simple sugars. Essentially, these enzymes are our first line of digestion defense and kick start the process.
Reminding you to slow down, chew your food and allow digestion to start might seem small minded. But consider the fact that, unfortunately, food is in our mouth for such a short period of time even when we’re conscious of this, that amylase and lysozomes can only break down or do 5% of their job on average. Give them any less time to work, and you’re definitely adding unwarranted distress to your downstream digestive processes…
Improving Your Digestive Enzymes
Getting your digestive enzymes is actually debated at length among dietitians and nutritionists. Some argue it’s best to get digestive enzymes from raw fruits and vegetables, while others argue that regardless of the source, our stomach acids will break them down immediately. The bottom line is that aside from supplementing with enzymes, natural foods like sprouted seeds, legumes, pineapple, mango, kiwi, avocado, raw honey, coconut oil and raw dairy products are great sources of digestive enzyme replenishment.