Digestion is the act of breaking down food from the beginning of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, in your mouth, to the end, as a healthy bowel movement. When your digestive system functions properly, beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants from wholesome foods are absorbed into your blood to provide strength to fight against infections. Proper digestion requires an adequate amount of functional digestive enzymes to help breakdown large food particles into their smaller substrates. The lack of proper digestion can result in life-threatening ailments including diabetes, hypertension, infections, cancer, arthritis, gall bladder disease, chronic headaches, Crohn’s disease, depression, psychotic behavior and more. One of the greatest challenges is recognizing the signs of poor digestion that your body is creating to communicate with you such as gas, bloating, or discomfort, and treating the underlying problem (poor diet and lifestyle), not just the symptoms.
There are four main types of digestive enzymes:
- protease for protein
- lipase for lipids (fat)
- disaccharidase for simple carbohydrates (sugar)
- amylase for complex carbohydrates (starch).
All enzymes work on specific substances only (i.e. protease is used to break down proteins, but never carbohydrate). There are also even more specific enzymes for the smaller food particles (amino acids, monosaccharides like glucose or fructose, etc.), but I’ll spare the details for the sake of getting the key points across.
Different enzymes require particular environmental needs to function properly. One enzyme may thrive in an acidic or warm environment, while another may become inactive given the same environment. To slow down fruits from ripening too fast, we refrigerate them because the enzyme function in certain fruits will accelerate at room temperature and become inhibited in colder temperatures. Optimal function of digestive enzymes are determined by:
- pH level (acidity vs alkalinity)
- substrate type
The key is to remember that your body should be balanced at a healthy level between alkalinity and acidity. If pH level is off, your body’s ability to transport and absorb nutrients is negatively affected. This is why maintaining a balanced pH of bodily fluids surrounding your cells as well as a normal body temperature are important for healthy digestion and overall health (this balance is called homeostasis). Regular consumption of high fat, high carbohydrate foods is an example of a habit that disturbs balance in the body. While your body is incredibly powerful in that it can heal itself, your organs suffer terribly from prolonged stress due to a lifetime of poor eating habits because it thrives on nutrients from wholesome foods in order to maintain equilibrium.
Overeating and Chronic Overeating
Eating a balanced meal of just enough protein, carbohydrate and fat provides the fuel our cells need to live, to work, to exercise, and to be healthy and happy. When we overeat, we put more food than there are digestive enzymes in our stomach. The food we overload our body with doesn’t get fully digested or absorbed, but we gain weight and end up fat yet malnourished (lacking nutrients). All this toxic build up results in high blood sugar (diabetes), high blood pressure (hypertension), and high cholesterol that turns into hardening of the arteries after a lifetime of overeating, not exercising and other bad habits (coronary heart disease).
How is poor digestion related to your immune system? No one ever says “having too much gas can give you liver disease,” but no one pays attention to the science of how digestion affects our body as a whole either, while you’re enjoying your double-double and a side of fries with a shake. Whether it’s excessive burping, the bloated feeling after you’ve ate too much or heartburn, it’s your body’s way of telling you it’s having trouble digesting your recent meal. Simply put, when you’re low on the digestive enzymes you need to help you break down food, your body turns to your white blood cells (WBCs), your disease combats. While WBCs help fight infections and protect you from bacteria and viruses, they end up taking over the digestion duties when 1) you overeat or 2) didn’t have enough enzymes for digestion to begin with. When this happens, WBCs see partially digested food as foreign invaders and react the same way as they would in response to an infection. Your immune system becomes at risk when this happens day in and day out, when you feed your body the same types of food everyday and practice the same eating habits over and over (chronic overeating). Unprepared for the real attack, our WBC soldiers aren’t at the frontline, they’re too busy digesting small fries. Literally in the form of fatty acids and fructose.
Enzymes Found in Food
Raw foods like uncooked vegetables and fruits contain an abundance of enzymes that aid in digestion as well. Food enzymes (specifically, amylase) are instantly activated when you chew food, which can contribute to the complete digestion of the food. Chewing food slowly heightens nutrient absorption as well as successful enzyme activation.
The next helpful post: how to acquire a taste for raw foods