We spend a ton of time thinking about what we're eating and how it influences our bodies, whether it's chugging a green smoothie in the morning for energy and fiber or sipping on a bone broth in the afternoon to heal our guts. How much, though, do you think about the impact the simple act of eating has on your body?
Say what? Here's the deal: Everything you eat, whether it's a cheeseburger or salad, takes your body a certain amount of energy to digest. Since we're eating three (or more!) times daily, one of the easiest things you can do to kick up your digestive system and massively take the burden off your body's energy resources is to incorporate more digestive enzymes into your life.
Digestive enzymes? What in the world are those?
"Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down food macromolecules into their smaller building blocks in order to facilitate their absorption into the body through the gut lining," says Dr. Vincent Pedre, author of Happy Gut. "The body makes a variety of digestive enzymes, from amylase in saliva to break down carbohydrates to proteases in the stomach that break down protein to lipase in the small intestine to break down fats." Your digestive enzymes, in essence, break down your food so you can absorb everything in it, whether it's the protein or the vitamin C. Don't have enough digestive enzymes? That salad you're eating won't be giving you nearly as many benefits as you think—and it's likely putting some wear and tear on your system to boot.
So how do you know if you have enough?
The vast majority of people don't make enough of their own digestive enzymes. Many of us don't have optimal gut health, due to the food we eat or the gut-degrading chemicals we're regularly exposed to. According to Dr. Will Cole, "Since most digestive enzymes are produced in the small intestine, leaky gut syndrome, SIBO, and candida overgrowth can lead to deficiencies in digestive enzymes. So while you're working on healing the gut, you should also focus on increasing your digestive enzymes." "People with more bloating, particularly if over the age of 50, are more likely to be low in stomach acid and be at risk for low production of enzymes," notes Dr. Terry Wahls. "Having food that is incompletely digested in the stool or having loose stool, also suggests a problem exists." Adding in enzymes will typically result in improved breakdown of food, greater nutrient availability and absorption, improved gut health, and improved energy.
How can you get your digestive enzymes with supplements?
There are tons of different types of digestive enzymes on the market, from all-purpose types to ones that are for specific foods (such as meat, dairy, or vegetables) or issues (such as low stomach acid production). According to Dr. Pedre, "It's best to start with comprehensive enzymes that may also have cellulases to help you digest plant-based foods, which are harder to digest. If you have difficulty digesting proteins, especially red meats, you may need a betaine-HCl supplement with pepsin to improve your protein absorption." Take them with meals, as that's when your body needs the enzyme to break down the food. mbg's own health editor, Gretchen Lidicker, has experienced massive changes since she started supplementing with digestive enzymes at the recommendation of her naturopath. "I take papaya enzymes with basically every meal," she says. "And if I eat gluten or dairy, I take special digestive enzymes for that. I think they help me feel less tired after I eat and definitely help me avoid bloating and stomachaches."
Do you need supplements, or can you get enough enzymes from food?
Raw vegetables are rich in enzymes, as are fruits like papaya and pineapples, but be sure to eat the center, tougher part of the pineapple (which many people discard), as that's where the bromelain digestive enzyme is found. Dr. Cole also recommends avocados to his patients as a great source of the digestive enzyme lipase. Because enzymes are heat-sensitive, incorporating a raw vegetable element into each meal is an easy way to improve your enzyme consumption. Finish your soup with some microgreens, throw some chopped cilantro on top of your stir-fry, or add a few chopped scallions to your burrito bowl and see how your body responds!