In this article:
- Why effective digestion is such a vital part of good health and disease prevention.
- How to tell if your stomach acid is low and ways to improve it for better protein digestion.
- The importance of your digestive enzymes and when you may need to supplement them.
- What to look for in a good digestive enzyme supplement and how to take them to prevent gastrointestinal problems.
Better Digestion Leads to Better Health
How well you digest the food you eat will have a significant impact on the level of health and energy you experience each day.
If your digestive processes are impaired, you’ll not only experience the more obvious symptoms, like stomach bloating, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea and flatulence. You’ll also be likely to suffer in the longer term from nutritional deficiencies, ongoing fatigue and a higher risk of diseases.
As covered, chewing your food properly and slowing down eating is the important first step. Next comes your stomach and its ability to break down the food you put into it.
When we’re young, most of us enjoy strong digestion. But, as we age, many of us have a reduced capacity to produce the high levels of stomach acid and digestive enzymes needed to break down difficult to digest meals.
Most fast food and supermarket ready meals are incredibly taxing for your digestive system to process. They usually provide no enzymes, few vitamins and minerals and require large amounts of stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes to break them down.
Some, like white flour products, actually deplete your body of more nutritional elements than they provide. Others, such as processed meats, are particularly hard for your digestive system to deal with.
Previously in this course, we’ve covered different forms of indigestible and problematic carbohydrates in foods that fuel intestinal gas production. It’s certainly important to reduce these foods in your diet, and this alone can have a beneficial effect on your digestive system’s health and ability to function properly.
However, if you’re not breaking down your food properly during digestion, then virtually anything you eat can feed intestinal bacteria and increase offensive gas.
There can also be even more serious health problems when undigested proteins in your intestine are treated by your body as foreign invaders. This can lead to debilitating autoimmune diseases like leaky gut syndrome and Crohn’s disease.
The Importance of Protein Digestion
Protein breakdown during digestion is vital to gastrointestinal health and your overall wellbeing. All protein foods, and especially meats, need to be chewed well to break them up into smaller pieces and increase their surface area.
Once these protein particles reach your stomach, they should be bathed in a strongly acidic environment to sterilize them of pathogens. Next pepsin, the protein digesting enzyme, is released to cleave the protein peptide bonds and break them down even further.
In the third stage of protein digestion, your food travels to the small intestine where it is worked on further by pancreatic enzymes. This process relies heavily on the healthy functioning of your pancreas and its ability to produce enough digestive enzymes to break down the amount of protein you are eating.
If any of these three stages is ineffective at breaking down protein, it can arrive only partially digested into the lower intestine. Here it can trigger further digestive problems, intestinal pain and inflammation and set the stage for various autoimmune diseases.
Poorly digested protein can also putrefy in the colon and become a major source of hydrogen sulfide and mercaptans, the highly odorous sulfur compounds that make some flatulence smells so terrible.
Improving Stomach Acid for Better Protein Digestion
Clearly proper protein digestion is very important. Once again, chewing your food well is the important first step.
Next you need to make sure you are producing enough stomach acid and pepsin. These are needed to properly break down protein in your stomach before it moves on to your small intestine.
When stomach acid is low, meals high in protein tend to sit like a rock in your stomach for long periods without moving. You won’t have the usual low churning of your tummy after a meal and you’ll likely feel tired and weighed down by all that stationary food.
If you are experiencing this feeling regularly, then look to low stomach acid as a possible source of your digestive problems and use some of the following natural ways to address it.
4 Ways to Increase Stomach Acid Production
- Both lemon water and apple cider vinegar in water are known to enhance stomach acid production for better digestion. Use the juice of a whole lemon or 3 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in a big glass of water, just before you sit down to a meal.
Ideally, drink either of them warm or at room temperature, rather than drinking chilled liquid which can be a shock to your digestive system.
- Herbal teas, like fennel, peppermint or ginger tea can also help to stimulate gastric juices in your stomach. Drink them just before you eat or slow sip them during a meal.
These are a much better choice if you enjoy a beverage with your meal than soda or coffee which can hamper digestion. They can also relax contractions in your gastrointestinal tract before it comes into contact with food, greatly reducing the chance of cramps and bloating.
- Another method for the stimulating stomach acid before a meal is to drink Swedish bitters in water. This is a combination of herbal extracts that improves digestion and combats yeast overgrowth in your intestines. The taste isn’t amazing but it does work well.
- For very low stomach acid, where your meals just seem to sit in your stomach forever, you can take betaine HCl capsules to supplement your natural gastric juices. Importantly, they should be taken at least half an hour after eating a high-protein meal to give your stomach time to produce its own acids before supplementation.
Low Digestive Enzymes
If you’ve minimized indigestible carbohydrates in your diet, are chewing your meals well and low stomach acid isn’t an issue, yet you are still experiencing digestive problems, then it’s likely you lack the enzymes to properly break down the meals you’re eating.
The more you can simplify your meals, the more easily they will be digested. Instead of a supermarket ready meal of processed protein, unnatural vegetable oils and various gas causing carbohydrates, try and stick to the basics.
As an example, a healthy source of protein like wild salmon, mixed with a few low gas vegetables, like leafy greens, carrot and tomato, perhaps a little natural coconut oil or olive oil for satiety and spices for taste.
It can also be very beneficial to eat the protein in your meal first, before tucking into the carbohydrates. This is because protein requires the release of pepsin in your stomach to digest it. If you first finish a big plate of fries and only then start eating your meat, it’s very likely to sit in your stomach without the pepsin to digest it properly.
If you do decide to eat difficult to break down junk food meals occasionally, then your digestive system will appreciate all the help it can get. They’re not a permanent solution, but from time to time a good digestive enzyme supplement can provide a huge improvement to digestion and help prevent bloating and excessive gas.
Supplementing Your Digestive Enzymes
A good broad spectrum digestive enzyme supplement contains proteases needed to break down protein, lipases for fat digestion and various other enzymes required for different carbohydrates.
It’s unlikely you’ll find one that also contains enough alpha-galactosidase for a big plate of beans and lactase for a lot of dairy as well, but they are highly beneficial to take with complex meals with a lot of different types of food ingredients.
Junk food and supermarket meals are usually so poorly put together from a digestive standpoint, that almost everyone would benefit from taking a broad spectrum digestive enzyme when eating ‘food’ like this.
What to Look for in a Good Digestive Enzyme
A good digestive enzyme should have plenty of protease for breaking down protein. This is probably the most important element if you eat a lot of protein rich foods. Papain from papaya and bromelain from pineapples can also help with this job.
Then there’s lipase for fat digestion, amylase for starches and various other enzymes to break down difficult to digest elements in food, like lactase for milk sugar. It’s a complicated topic, which is covered in detail by a doctor here.
Unless you have special requirements due to an unusual diet, it’s generally recommended to look for a high protease, yet broad spectrum digestive enzymes that covers a lot of bases and comes from a reputable company.
These are the best broad spectrum digestive enzymes I’ve found. They have lots of protein digesting enzymes and a good mix of other ingredients. You can pull up the back label to check the enzyme content and the 400+ reviews are highly positive too.
When to Take Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes are best taken just before or at the start of a meal with a glass of water or tea. You don’t want to have them too early, as they may clear the stomach before food arrives. You also don’t want to have them too late after eating, as they have less time to do their work.
It’s better to use them occasionally, for big and difficult to digest meals, rather than for every main meal, unless your digestive functions are seriously impaired. In this case, a knowledgeable healthcare professional should be consulted as there may be serious gastrointestinal issues that need to be addressed.
The healthier your diet, the easier it usually is to digest your meals properly. Good nutrition also creates the right conditions for proper stomach acid and natural digestive enzyme production.
On the other hand, a processed diet of low-quality foods is not only extremely difficult to digest, each meal like this further depletes your pancreatic enzymes and leads to lower stomach acid for even more digestive problems.
Broad spectrum digestive enzymes can help improve food breakdown in the short term. In the longer-term, feeding your body natural foods that are high in nutrition and enzymes is the best way to ensure good digestion for better overall health and wellbeing.
- If your stomach acid is low then try drinking lemon water, fennel tea or one of the other remedies suggested just before you eat. If this isn’t enough for big protein meals then consider getting betaine HCl capsules and taking them half an hour after you eat.
- Low digestive enzymes can be a weak link in the digestion process for many. More nutritious meals will help, but if you do want to have the occasional less than healthy meal then try taking a broad spectrum digestive enzyme like this just before you eat.
Photo credit: anjuli_ayer