As we age our body tends to produce less digestive secretions. This can create digestive discomfort, gas, and bloating. Optimal digestion of food is a critical factor in nutrient absorption and when suboptimal can result in nutrient deficiencies such as B12, amino acids, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals and vitamins.
The body makes several digestive juices that support good digestion – digestive enzymes, HCl, and bile are the big three. So if you have digestive issues or nutrient deficiencies you may be wondering if your body is making enough and if taking digestive enzymes might help.
Digestion starts in the mouth with good chewing and release of an enzyme by the salivary glands called amylase, which gets to work breaking down certain carbohydrates. HCl (along with pepsin) gets to work once food reaches the stomach and is produced by the parietal cells in the stomach lining. Optimal stomach acid not only helps to digest proteins but also helps to protect us from infections that we may ingest via food. HCl production tends to decline as we age, which can cause symptoms such as heartburn and poor nutrient absorption.
As food moves from the stomach to the small intestine, bile and digestive enzymes get to work. Bile has many functions but in terms of digestive function, is mostly known for helping our body break down fats. Digestive enzymes are made in the pancreas and the brush border of the GI tract. Therefore, those with intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut), or other gastrointestinal issues and those with pancreatic dysfunction (including diabetes), may not produce optimal amounts. There are other causes of low enzyme production as well, and levels can be tested with blood testing or stool testing.
There are several types of digestive enzymes and you may produce ample amounts of some, but not others. For example, some people don’t make enough lactase and are therefore lactose intolerant.
- Digestive enzymes that break down proteins
- Digestive enzymes that break down fats
- Digestive enzymes that break down carbs
- Lactase (breaks down milk sugar)
- Sucrase (breaks down sucrose)
- Alpha-galactosidase (breaks down carbs in beans and crucifers)
This is not an exhaustive list as there are other enzymes as well.
If you find certain foods cause gas, bloating or other gastrointestinal symptoms, your provider may recommend a digestive enzyme. Other indications of poor digestive secretions are finding undigested food in your stool and floating stools (indicating poor fat digestion).
But it’s also important to remember good eating hygiene as well. A digestive enzyme can’t make up for good chewing for example. Here are some other tips to improve your overall digestion.
- Avoid eating when stressed. Digestion is a parasympathetic function. When the body is stressed it is in a sympathetic fight or flight mode and thus digestive function is slowed. Avoid eating while driving, rushing or doing stressful activities. Taking a few deep, cleansing breaths before eating can help shift you into “rest and digest” mode.
- Chew your food well. If you’re always the first one done at the table, this is a good indication you aren’t doing this well. Many people only chew each bite of food a few times before swallowing it. Try to chew your food until it’s mostly liquid. This significantly reduces the work of your stomach and intestinal system. Try putting down your fork between bites and leaning back in your chair.
- Drink most of your liquids between meals. Certainly, it’s fine to have some water along with your meals, but too much liquid during meals can dilute your stomach acid and make it less potent, leading to belching and bloating. Food can hang around in your stomach longer than it should and ferment. This can lead to gas, heartburn, and indigestion. Focus on steady hydration in between meals and have only a small glass handy during meals to help clear the palate.
- Eat only until you’re 80% full or less. Smaller meals are easier to digest and are less likely to cause belching.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing. Avoid anything tight around your midsection to allow your digestive system to have room to move and do its thing.
- Don’t eat for 3 hours before bedtime. Digestion is hampered when the body is horizontal.
Try these tips for improved digestion, and if you need additional digestive support, talk to your provider about digestive enzymes.