Diet and the state of our digestion is a big topic that is discussed from all sides. The digestive tract contains a myriad of different types of microorganisms, acids and other substances that aid in the passage of food, its breakdown and absorption of all the important vitamins, minerals and macronutrients. Each of these substances has its own important place in the digestive system, and its own specific roles. The same is the case with the so-called digestive enzymes. If any of them are under-represented, our metabolism may not work properly, which can be accompanied by a number of unpleasant symptoms and difficulties. So what digestive enzymes do we know and what are they really for? You can read that below in this article.
What are digestive enzymes and what are their functions in the body?
Digestive enzymes are complex proteins that serve as catalysts and thus enable the chemical processes of digestion to function. Without them, many reactions in the body would not be able to take place at all. They actually break down food into smaller molecules so that it is more easily absorbed and all the nutrients can be properly used to our benefit. Digestive enzymes are an integral part of the human body, and some of them can also be ingested with food. In fact, they occur naturally in certain plant and animal products. For example, leafy vegetables, certain fruits, kefir, honey and fermented foods such as kimchi (fermented vegetables) or sauerkraut.
Several factors can adversely affect the amount of enzymes in the diet. These include early harvesting, the use of chemicals during cultivation or their addition to the food itself, improper storage and many more. However, internal factors such as body temperature, health or the pH level in the stomach can also have a negative impact. Supplementing digestive enzymes with dietary supplements can therefore have a very positive effect. Beyond the basic function of breaking down and better absorbing dietary components, there are other related capabilities. These include the transport of molecules, building muscles or getting rid of toxins.
What are digestive enzymes?
There are more than three thousand known types of digestive enzymes. We will describe here the most important, the most well-known and the most represented. Such enzymes mainly break down the three basic macronutrients – sugars, fats and proteins.
This enzyme from the hydrolase group helps to break down lipids. Together with bile, it breaks down fats into simpler molecules, namely glycerol and the absorbable form of fatty acids. When food is consumed, bile comes first and breaks down the lipids so that the lipases can take care of the rest. A type of lipase is even found in breast milk, where it is found to help the baby more easily digest the fat molecules present in the milk.
Proteases promote the digestion of proteins. Thus, they break down the complex structure of proteins into individual amino acids, which are then used for other processes. They are produced in the stomach, pancreas and small intestine. Proteases also play a role in cell division, blood clotting or the immune system.
Amylase, cellulase and lactase
Amylase is already present in our mouths, where it is present in saliva. Already when chewing, it helps to break down carbohydrates into simpler structures. However, it is also active after we swallow food. However, it is also produced by the pancreas and in the small intestine. Lactase takes care of milk sugar, or lactose, which it breaks down into glucose and galactose. Cellulase breaks down cellulose fibres into glucose and short-chain polysaccharides.
Nuclease is an enzyme that hydrolyzes the binding of nucleic acids (DNA, RNA), breaking them down into individual nucleotides. It is essential for natural mechanisms such as DNA repair.
Bromelain and papain
Are the other two most well-known digestive enzymes that can be found in certain foods. Bromelain is a natural enzyme found mostly in pineapple and papain is obtained from papaya. Both are involved in the more efficient breakdown of proteins into amino acids.