The gut is the center of the body in more ways than one, and having a healthy gut is absolutely vital for every other aspect of our health and wellbeing. Yet today's numbers are getting worse and worse. According to recent research(1) over 60-70 million Americans suffer from digestive disorders of various kinds. About 20% of people suffer from low stomach acid, and those numbers can increase to over 50% for seniors(2). Those who have their pancreas removed (the organ responsible for producing most of your digestive enzymes) have a rapidly declining lifespan,(3) and there are over 1.2 million gallbladder removal surgeries per year--the gallbladder being very important for processing fats through bile production.(4)
Digestion is a critical part of health, and impaired digestion means a host of other problems both acute and chronic, such as malnutrition, inflammation and mental health concerns. This is why understanding the basics of digestion, and how to support your body (especially as you grow older) is very important.
The Basics of Digestion
While people have written entire books on the complexities of how our bodies break things down, the truth is you really can get a lot out of simply understanding a few basic things. Food comes in 4 categories: fats, proteins, carbs and fiber. Your body needs to break these down (except fiber, although with exceptions) so that the building blocks of these macronutrients can be used for energy and repair. Protein breaks down into amino acids, fats break down into fatty acids and carbohydrates break down into glucose (sugar) for immediate energy.
To accomplish this work your body uses chemicals called enzymes. In chemistry, enzymes are called "catalysts" because their job is to facilitate chemical reactions and make them go faster. Your body uses hundreds of enzymes, many of which are still unknown to science, but all enzymes have one thing in common: they rely on co-factors like minerals and vitamins to work properly. This is why having a comprehensive nutrition program like I outline here is so important for long-term health. Enzymes need minerals like copper, manganese, zinc and magnesium to function properly, and when we are deficient in these minerals our body has a harder time keeping up with its demands. Over the course of our lives our enzyme potential as an organism diminishes and this leads to symptoms of aging such as: slower repair, more pain, food intolerances, brain fog, lethargy and so on.
Enzymes are also themselves protein structures, and what that means is your body needs to have adequate levels of protein to be able to use those building blocks (amino acids) to create more enzymes. But if you have low stomach acid like most people or digestive issues and a poor diet, chances are your protein intake is also not the best. Hence, less enzyme activity in the body and faster aging.
The Importance of Digestive Enzymes
When we eat processed, cooked food it is devoid of enzymes because they are heat sensitive. This is why raw foods are so invigorating, they still have life in them. But eating a raw diet is difficult and potentially dangerous if you are careless, so this is a Catch 22. This is why it is important to have a quality digestive enzyme product for everyday use.
Because your body was created with intelligence, there is an enzyme for every macronutrient. Proteins have protease, carbohydrates have amylase and fats have lipase. This is actually a very simplified explanation, because each of these enzyme names are actually families of enzymes. Some people who can't handle beans, for example, can take a special product like Beano which comes with a specific enzyme to breakdown the type of starches and carbs in beans that give the most insult. Enzymes are your friend and they are important for health.
Over time we produce less enzymes, and there are many factors that inhibit our enzyme production besides the things I've listed here. These can be toxicity, injury, genetics, stress, hormone imbalance and several others. This is why one of the most important parts of a health protocol that I always recommend is to have a good digestive enzyme supplement. But how do you pick a good one and how do you know you're getting your money's worth?
How to Pick a Good Digestive Enzyme
Today there are many products on the market as the last 20+ years have seen an explosion in digestive supplements. When picking a good product you have to remember the basics of digestion, and so let's review them here.
First you need a product that has all the enzyme families for proteins, fats and carbs, and a wide variety of enzymes within each. It's also important that the product has specific enzymes for difficult foods like beans, namely alpha-galactosidase. This is the enzyme found in Beano, but Beano has only one enzyme and so it is pointless as a general support formula.
It is also important to notice the active units listed on the bottle. If no active units are listed then contact the manufacturer and get an idea. The higher, the better, because that means the more potent the formula. In the product I've used and recommended for over 15 years, Optimal Digest-A-Meal, it has 125,000 enzyme units per serving which is a very good amount. It also has all of the major enzyme families and a great variety of important enzymes within each.
Most products stop there and that alone is decent. But remember that enzymes also need minerals to work properly, like copper and zinc and manganese. Very few products will include these in their formulation, and what that can lead to is a deficiency in these important minerals over time if you aren't getting them from other sources. This is why I recommend this product, because it includes these valuable minerals and from natural sources.
Last but not least it is always important to replenish your gut microbiome with good bacteria and pre-biotic fiber. Probiotics refers to the actual organisms, whereas "pre" biotics refers to the materials these critters like to eat, one of them being a starch called Jerusalem Artichoke. These are actually very similar to potatoes and are a very hardy plant, but the nature of their carbohydrate can cause gas for most people until you get accustomed to it. Nevertheless a small amount acts as food for your gut bacteria and can help restore the balance within your gut.
When picking a good digestive enzyme product you have to make sure it has a comprehensive amount of enzymes, a high amount of enzyme units, additional minerals in natural forms (chelates) for supporting enzyme activity, as well as prebiotics and probiotics for digestive support. With all of these qualities in mind, my recommendation comes from over 15+ years of personal use and use with my clients and family: Optimal Digest-A-Meal. It is a great all-around product that is safe, quality and effective.