To understand what digestive enzymes are, one needs to understand the workings of the digestive system. The digestive system, also known as the gastrointestinal tract (GI), consists of several organs that are joined together starting from the mouth all the way to the rectum. Each of the organs performs their own particular function, breaking down food into units that are easily absorbable by the body.
Organs such as the liver, gallbladder and the pancreas are known as accessory organs, and are also involved in the chemical breakdown of food during the digestive process.
Food that is eaten, consists of compounds that are unable to pass through the walls of the intestines into the bloodstream. They need to be broken down into smaller units and their chemical composition changed before they can be absorbed by the gut. Once this breakdown is complete, the gut then disposes of the waste byproducts.
The organs involved in digesting food are also responsible for the secretion of digestive enzymes, chemicals that are essential for the conversion of food into a useful and absorbable form. The process begins in the mouth.
The Digestive Process: Chewing the food crushes it into a pulp and the enzymes in saliva break down the carbohydrates contained in the food into simpler sugars such as disaccharides and trisaccharides. From there the partially crushed food is pushed down the esophagus to where it joins the stomach at the lower esophageal sphincter (LES).
Proteins are digested in the stomach with the help of the enzyme pepsin and broken down into polypeptides. Hydrochloric acid in the stomach aids in the process of breaking down the cell membranes in foods and makes it easier for the enzymatic action to work. Stomach acids also kill bacteria that have been swallowed along with the food. Other digestive enzymes also help to break down the food into simpler units before entering the small intestine via the pylorus.
Carbohydrate digestion is completed in the small intestine where pancreatic amylase, an enzyme secreted by the pancreas, breaks down the carbohydrates into simpler sugars. There are several enzymes secreted by the small intestine that work during this phase and this includes maltase, sucrose, and lactase. Maltase converts maltose into the simpler glucose while sucrose breaks down the complex sugar sucrose to form glucose and fructose. Lactase converts lactose which results in the formation of glucose and galactose.
Proteins digestion is aided by enzymes secreted by the pancreas including chymotrypsin, trypsin, carboxypeptidase, elastase and pancreatic peptidase. Fats get digested in the small intestine with help from bile from the liver and lipase from the pancreas.
Digestive Disorders: Disorders that affect any of the organs involved with the digestive process will create digestive problems. For example, a malfunctioning lower esophageal sphincter can allow stomach acids to back up into the esophagus and destroy the esophageal lining, causing the typical symptoms of heartburn and indigestion. Gallstones may block the flow of bile from the liver to the gallbladder where they are stored, resulting in pain and affecting the health of the liver. Disorders in the pancreas can cause other disorders with far reaching consequences such as diabetes.
What are digestive enzymes supplements: There are numerous enzyme supplements available that are purported to help aid the digestive process in case a particular enzyme is not being secreted within the body. However, enzymes are proteins and those that are found in foods such as meat and fish are treated as such by the body and broken down into amino acids. Enzyme supplements fall into the same category and their only benefit will be in the form of a little extra amino acid contributed to the diet.
Enzyme supplements containing lactase are beneficial to individuals suffering from lactose intolerance. Lactose, a huge source of carbs in milk, is broken down by lactase. Lactose Intolerant people produce lactose, but not in sufficient amounts. Hence they suffer from the side effects. These side effects include diarrhea, bloating and cramping after consuming foods containing lactose.
Consult your doctor or dietician regarding any enzyme related problems you may have before trying any of the enzyme supplements available.