The digestive system is incredibly complex and continuously being studied by scientists to uncover all of its secrets. The digestive system doesn’t just include the stomach, but also the mouth, esophagus, small intestine, and large intestine, all part of the alimentary canal. Everything we eat must pass through these systems to be fully processed.
Digestive enzymes are proteins found throughout the digestive system that assist the body in breaking down food. Digestive enzymes are secreted in the mouth as soon as we start chewing. These enzymes can break down starch and begin to tenderize meat. In fact, you don’t even have to start chewing to release enzymes. Ever smell dinner cooking and start to salivate? Your saliva glands are already producing enzymes to break down what you are about to eat. After passing the mouth and esophagus, food reaches the stomach. Not only is the stomach responsible for turning everything we put into our mouths into a liquified form, but is also extremely tough and durable. It must be in order to withstand a harsh, acidic environment. The stomach is made of multiple layers of muscle, all crossing in different directions to churn our food. The stomach is also responsible for secreting digestive enzymes, such as pepsin and lipase, which break down protein and fat (1). After being tossed around by the stomach, food passes into the small intestine. The small intestine is where the magic happens: nutrients pass through villi, hair-like structures that increase surface area for maximum absorption, and are sent out into the body for good use. From there food continues to the large intestine, where a smaller amount of nutrients are absorbed, and eventually excreted.
These are just a few examples of the many enzymes that break down food. Unfortunately, we often have trouble digesting our food properly and need extra assistance along the way. Common digestive complications include lactose intolerance, food allergies, celiac disease, irritable bowel disease (IBS), ulcerative colitis, crohn’s disease, and less severe symptoms such as bloating and gas. Certain foods alone may be especially hard to break down, like beans or cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. Digestion can even be greatly disrupted due to stress. As we age, some digestive enzyme secretion decreases in our bodies as well (2). Supplementing your diet with digestive enzymes can be a great way to get things moving again. In addition, taking a high-quality probiotic and consuming fermented foods can create a healthy gut environment to better digest food and support a healthy immune system. You know the popular saying, “Listen to your gut?” Well, do it! It may be trying to tell you something.
- GI Enzymes and Their Importance in Digestion. Penn State University. http://sites.psu.edu/thealimentarystudents/2014/03/10/gi-enzymes-and-their-importance-in-digestion/. March 10, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2017.
- Rémond D, Shahar DR, Gille D, et al. Understanding the gastrointestinal tract of the elderly to develop dietary solutions that prevent malnutrition. Oncotarget. 2015;6(16):13858-13898.