From Mouth to Colon: The Journey of Your Digestive Enzymes

7 minute read

Our body requires 45 essential nutrients in order to function properly. The word essential means that we are not able to synthesize this material internally. All essential nutrients must come from outside sources. Food is our external source and needs to be digested in order to access these nutrients. 

| Related: What Are Digestive Enzymes? |

Each nutrient interacts with other nutrients and chemicals to create compounds that can then be used to build and repair cells, bones, tissue and organs. This process is known as metabolism and the reactions needed are caused by enzymes.

Enzymes are catalysts that kick start reactive processes in our body. As soon as an enzyme attaches to a molecule, a chemical process is triggered to break down the molecule.

Three Types Of Enzymes

Metabolic enzymes, produced by our bodies, repair and maintain the body’s organs and tissues. They also enable the growth of new cells.

Digestive enzymes chemically break down foods we eat to allow for nutrient absorption and energy. These digestive enzymes specifically target different particles. For example, amylase breaks down carbohydrates. Protease breaks down proteins and lipase, fats.These digestive enzymes work in the mouth, stomach, pancreas, and intestines.

Food enzymes are not found in the body; they are found primarily in plants, the fruits and vegetables we consume. However, cooking destroys many of these enzymes. They are not heat stable. 

The Digestive Enzyme Journey

Our digestive process begins in the mouth as soon as food is introduced. Chewing doesn’t only mechanically break down food but it also begins the enzyme process. Saliva contains several types of enzymes that start acting on the food immediately.

Amalyse in saliva breaks down carbohydrates and complex sugars. Lipase begins to break down lipids or fats in the mouth but becomes much more active later on in the digestive process in the stomach.

Once food travels to your stomach, more thorough digestion occurs.  Pepsin’s ability to withstand acidic conditions makes it the primary enzyme secreted in the stomach where it is responsible for breaking down proteins into amino acids and peptides.

The amylase from the saliva enters the stomach but is quickly killed off by the acid. Lipase, secreted from the pancreas, continues to work on the fats in the stomach, breaking them down into fatty acid particles.  Digestion can continue in the stomach for at least an hour before the food moves along. Semi-digested food combined with digestive enzymes in the stomach and intestines is called chyme.

human small intestines

Carbohydrate digestion continues once chyme moves to the small intestine where the enzymes maltase, lactase and sucrase take over. Fat digestion continues with lipase from the pancreas.  Protein digestion is performed by trypsin in the small intestine.

By the time the semi-digested carbohydrates, fats and proteins reach the small intestine, it’s mostly digested and nutrients are absorbed by the lower part of the small intestine. Anything that is left is considered to be waste and is moved along for expulsion.  

| Related: Celiac Sufferers Find Relief with Active Proteolytic Enzymes |

The pancreas plays an indirect but important role in digestion. It is responsible for producing the enzymes in an inactive form, stored until they are needed and secreted them into the small intestine for digestion.

The organ stores and secretes a mixture of proteins, inactive enzymes and bicarbonate. It also helps to support enzyme function by reducing the acidity of the food moving from the stomach to the gut.

Enzyme Disruption 

Any disruption to the small intestine can interfere with the production and release of enzymes. The presence of yeast, inflammation or a leaky gut can hinder the digestion process. This will lead to difficulty digesting certain foods, depending on which enzymes have become impaired.  Sometimes a reaction occurs because of a damaged gut wall rather than a specific food.  

People mistakenly think they have to avoid foods when in reality, they just need to give their gut some time to heal. The best way to heal a damaged or impaired gut is by taking supplemental enzymes. Once your intestinal wall is healed, your digestive enzymes will naturally be produced again.  Foods that once caused a problem no longer will.  

Without enzymes, no metabolic activity will occur. This means no energy and no nutrients for the systems in your body. Essentially we cannot survive without enzymes.  If you suspect that your enzyme levels are low, speak with a physician and look into getting supplements.  

The digestive journey is a long one and without the work of enzymes, it would indeed be perilous.  So respect the power of digestive enzymes and you will get the most out of your food and your digestive system.

salad with olive oil and salt

Why We Need Enzymes

Many foods when uncooked contain enough digestive enzymes for the process. However, when we cook or process the food, we destroy a large number of these enzymes. Therefore, we need to provide supplemental enzyme supplies to keep our digestive process running efficiently.

Even if you eat raw vegetables such as a salad along with steak and potato, you may have enough enzymes from the salad to break down the salad but not enough left to break down the meat or the potato. Undigested food means we miss out on.

a variety of sprouts

Enzyme Supplements and Diet

Sometimes, enzyme deficiency can manifest in severe symptoms. For the most part, any deficiency can be managed with supplemental enzymes. These are able to provide the right dosage that your body needs to correct any imbalance.

You can still take these supplements even if you do not have signs of any symptoms.  Any additional enzymes in the system will provide a temporary boost to your metabolism, which makes you feel better and keep your body functioning at optimal levels.

If you are concerned about enzyme levels, you need to manage your diet because the two are closely linked. A number of foods out there contain high numbers of digestive enzymes such as raw foods like sprouts, green and leafy vegetables, grains and legumes. Most people prefer to have these items cooked but there is no harm in eating them raw and your metabolism will thank you.  

sprouts and supplement pills and capsules

The Bottom Line

Without enzymes, the process of digestion could not progress which means we miss out on essential nutrients and our bodies cannot function. Even though these compounds are complex in nature, they do their job with efficiency and precision to keep things running smoothly. Keeping your enzyme levels balanced is fairly easy so long as you pay attention. Understanding their role and the journey they take through the body helps us to support and work with them.

Read Next >>> Why is There Yeast in My Digestive Enzymes?