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All About Digestive Enzymes

Not everyone should be taking digestive enzyme supplements, and not all of them are created equal.

As a practitioner, I find that many people with digestive issues want to jump straight into using a supplement. And many times I would rather try other strategies first. Not to mention, that some supplements can be harmful if used inappropriately.

So, let’s dive into a few of the common digestive enzymes, what they do, and who should NOT take them.


What are digestive enzymes?

Technically, “enzymes” are compounds that help critical biochemical reactions to happen in your body. These reactions can be anything, from making neurotransmitters like serotonin, to burning food for energy, to breaking down the food we eat into smaller pieces that our guts can absorb.

Oh, and they all end with “ase”.

As I just hinted, “digestive enzymes” are specifically those enzymes we use for digestion. They’re enzymes that our digestive system naturally makes and secretes when we eat.

Now, all of the “macronutrients” we eat (carbs, protein & fat) need to be broken down into their individual (smaller) parts so that we can properly absorb and digest them. They’re just too big otherwise, and if we don’t absorb them properly, we can get symptoms of fatigue, malnutrition, digestive distress, or a host of other symptoms.  

It is these individual (smaller) parts that our body amazingly rearranges and uses to create other larger molecules that our body needs.

The most common digestive enzymes you’ll see on product labels are:

  • Amylase – Helps to break down starch into its sugars.
  • alpha-Galactosidase – Helps to break down specific “fermentable carbohydrates” into its sugars.
  • Lactase – Helps to break down lactose into its sugars.
  • Protease – Helps to break down protein into its amino acids.
  • Bromelain and/or Papain – Help to break down protein into its amino acids.
  • Lipase – Helps to break down fats into its lipids.

Who should consider taking digestive enzymes?

I would always recommend that you see a qualified healthcare practitioner for an expert opinion on whether your issues can be related to digestion, and which, if any, supplements can help you.

In general, the most common digestive symptoms that enzymes *may* help with are bloating, cramping, and/or diarrhoea. Particularly if it happens after eating certain foods (think lactose-intolerance symptoms after eating dairy).

One reason for these symptoms can be that food particles are not broken down properly, and the larger pieces travel further down the digestive tract to the microbiota where those little critters start breaking them down themselves. And this is definitely troublesome for certain people.

Don’t get me wrong, a healthy gut microbiota is absolutely essential for good health. And more and more research is showing just how it can affect not only our digestion, but also our immune system, and even our mood.


What do I need to know? – Medical conditions

Of course, you should read the label of any products you take, and take them as directed, especially if they’re not specifically recommended for you by your health care practitioner who knows your history.

Here are two critical things to be aware of:

1 – Digestive enzymes that break down carbohydrates into sugars should be carefully considered before for diabetics.

This is because taking them breaks down more carbohydrates into sugars than your body normally would; so, anyone at risk of blood sugar issues may need to take caution.

2 – When it comes to enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids, there are a few people who should avoid them because of potential interactions. That is if you have an ulcer, or are taking blood-thinners or anti-inflammatories, or if you’re having surgery.

The reason is that the digestive enzymes that break down protein are thought to cause or worsen ulcers, as well as have the ability to “thin” the blood and prevent normal clotting.


What do I need to know? – Possible Side effects

Using digestive enzyme supplements for a prolonged period of time may well justify an appointment with a knowledgeable practitioner. There may be strategies other than daily supplementation that can serve you better.

If you find that your symptoms get worse, or even if they don’t get better, you should probably stop using them.


Before considering a digestive enzyme supplement

You shouldn’t just jump to supplementing with digestive enzymes without a proper diagnosis or trying a few strategies first.

My first recommendation for digestive distress would be to relax more, eat slower, and chew more thoroughly. This helps to break down food and can put less stress on your digestive tract.

The second step would be to try eliminating certain troublesome foods from your diet (dairy & gluten, for example) and see if that helps.

If neither of these steps helps or don’t fully resolve the issues, then further investigations to rule out SIBO, parasites, yeast overgrowth and more should be considered.


Conclusion:

While many supplements are safe products, they’re not all for everyone.  

I recommend that you:

  • Read your labels carefully (who should take them, how to take them, when to stop taking them).
  • If you have a medical condition or are taking medications speak with your doctor or pharmacist.
  • If you want expert advice on whether a specific supplement is for you, speak with a qualified healthcare practitioner.

Check out our Tropical Digestive Smoothie!

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Tropical Digestive Smoothie

Pineapple and papaya are rich sources of the enzymes papain and bromelain. They support the digestion of protein. Have them as they are before a meal to prep your digestive tract for your main meal, or try this smoothie.

Serves 1

  • 1 cup pineapple, diced
  • 1 cup papaya, diced
  • 1 banana, chopped
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 1 scoop of unflavoured protein
  • ice if desired

Put all ingredients(except ice) into the blender and blend. Add ice if desired.
Serve & enjoy!

Tip: The levels of enzymes in whole pineapple and papaya aren’t as concentrated as taking them in a supplement; so if you’re not allergic to these delicious fruits, you can try this smoothie.

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improve-gut-health

How To Improve Gut Health

Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.”

And while this may not be 100% true for every disease in every person, more and more research shows that our gut (digestive system) has a bigger role in many diseases than we used to think. And we’re not just talking about heartburn, constipation, diarrhoea, IBS, IBD, etc. We’re talking about all kinds of issues like allergies, pain, mood disorders, and nutrient deficiencies.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Our gut is the portal to the outside world. It’s here where we take in disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. We also take in nutrients (and toxins) through our gut. The nutrients we ingest and absorb are the building blocks of every single part of our body. We’re just learning the connections between our gut and other areas of our body, like our brain (have you heard of “the gut-brain axis”). Not just our gut per se; but, its friendly resident microbes too. These guys also have newly discovered roles in our gut health and overall health.

So, let’s talk about the roles that our gut and our gut microbes play in our overall health. Then I’ll give you tips to improve your gut health naturally.


Our gut’s role in our overall health

Is your gut leaky?

Our gut’s main role is as a barrier. To let things in that should get in, and to keep things out that should stay out. Think of “absorption” of nutrients as things we want to let in; and “elimination” of waste as things we want to pass right through and out.

This seemingly simple role is super-complex! And it can break down in so many places.

For one thing, our guts can “leak.” Yes, like a long tube with holes in it, it can allow things to get into our bloodstream/bodies that can wreak havoc (bacteria, undigested food, and toxins). You name it, whatever you put into your mouth can be absorbed by your gut and get into your bloodstream, even if it’s not supposed to. And when your gut wall gets irritated, it can “leak.” When this happens, you get inflammation, which is a starting point for many diseases that don’t seem linked to the gut but have a sneaky connection there.

FUN FACT: About 70% of our immune system lives in and around our gut.

A healthy gut is not a leaky gut. It maintains its barrier and shuttles things through to be eliminated. Maintaining a healthy gut barrier is the first pillar of gut health.

What’s living in your gut?

The second main part of your gut are the billions of friendly health-promoting microbes. Gut microbes help us digest and absorb nutrients. They fight off disease-causing microbes, make some vitamins for us, and have all kinds of other health benefits, like mental health benefits, reducing inflammation, and stabilising blood sugar.

So, keeping your gut microbes happy is the second pillar of gut health!


How to improve gut health

What to Stop

There are a lot of natural ways to improve gut health. Let’s start with what to stop. It’s always best to eliminate the cause, so let’s stop giving our guts junk to deal with. How about eliminating added sugars, processed foods, and alcohol? Try that for a few weeks, and you may be amazed at how much better your body (and gut) feels.

You may also want to eliminate other gut irritants. Dairy and grains contain common compounds known to irritate some people’s guts. Sometimes you only need to eliminate them for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference for your health.

What to add

By eating nutrient-dense foods, we allow ample macro- and micro-nutrients into our gut to maximise the chance for absorption. These nutrients help our bodies build and repair our gut, and every other body part as well. Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include dark leafy greens, colourful fruits and veggies, liver, and fish.

The second pillar of gut health is our microbes. By ingesting probiotic-rich foods and drinks, we can help to replenish our gut microbes. These are found in fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Make these a part of your daily diet.

Whole foods are full of gut-friendly fibre. Not eating enough fibre increases the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. Fibre plays lots of roles in our gut, including whisking away some of those pesky bad bacteria and toxins so they can be eliminated. Fibre also helps to feed our friendly resident microbes that help us absorb and digest our food better. What foods have a lot of fibre? Fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and even cacao.

Lifestyle factors

And don’t forget the uber-important lifestyle factors like getting enough sleep, stressing less, and getting the right amount (and intensity) of exercise for you. It’s easy to forget some of the simple, but key links there are between what we do with our bodies and how well they function.


Conclusion

The function of your gut is key to your overall health. There are two pillars of gut health: maintaining a good barrier and maintaining healthy gut microbes.

The main ways to improve both of these naturally is by eating nutrient-dense whole foods. Foods filled with nutrition, probiotics, and fibre. And eliminating common gut irritants like added sugar, processed foods, and alcohol.


Recipe (Probiotic-rich): Fermented Carrots

Serves 12

  • 1 L warm water
  • 4 tsp salt
  • 4 carrots, medium, peeled, sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed (optional)

Instructions

Make a brine by dissolving the salt in water.

Place carrots into a clean canning jar, packing them in tight. Make sure to leave about 1 inch of head space at the top.

Fill the jar with brine, making sure to cover the carrots completely. Weigh the carrots down to make sure they don’t float (you can use a “fermenting weight”).

Close the jar and let it sit at room temperature for 1-4 days. The longer it sits, the more the flavor will develop. Feel free to open and taste.

Serve & enjoy!

Tip: Use this as a side dish, or even a snack.

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