Enzymes, Part Two: Digestion

(Read Part One here).

It’s a few days after Thanksgiving, and you’re hungry. You make yourself a simple turkey sandwich with the leftovers. Bread, turkey, lettuce, maybe a little mayo or mustard. You sit down and take a bite…

Before the turkey sandwich even hits your lips, your digestive enzymes start working. Just the thought of a juicy, leftover-turkey sandwich begins to activate the enzymes in your saliva, called amylase. Amylase is contained in everyone’s saliva and is the first enzyme utilized in digestion. It breaks down carbohydrates while you chew. The more you chew your food, the easier it will be to digest your meal, because you are allowing the amylase to get a good start on digestion before the food even hits your stomach. Occasionally you may take a bite and swallow it with only a few chews. This bite will be difficult to digest because the amylase did not get a chance to begin the process in your mouth.

You may notice that when you eat a cracker or a slice of bread and chew it thoroughly, it begins to taste sweet. This is because the amylase in your saliva is breaking down the carbohydrates into their component sugars inside of your mouth. Try it! If you taste the sweetness, you know you are chewing your food thoroughly, which is a good thing.

Now back to your turkey sandwich…

Your bite travels down your esophagus into your stomach. It lands in the hydrochloric acid that should be in everyone’s stomach (Why? Read about it here). Your stomach releases protease enzymes that, along with the hydrochloric acid and your stomach muscles, further break down the protein from your bite of turkey sandwich. Lipase is another enzyme found here that works to break down fats. If you have plant enzymes in your stomach (from a fresh veggie or from an enzyme supplement you’ve taken before your meal), these will also begin breaking down that bite of turkey sandwich. All of these enzymes work hard to break down your food for about an hour before the food travels on to your small intestine.

Once inside your 20-25 foot small intestine (it lies right behind your belly button), additional enzymes are enlisted to further aid in digestion. Your intestine lining and your pancreas will excrete some enzymes that begin to work on that turkey sandwich. If you have digestive issues such as yeast, food allergies or inflammation, the enzymes in your small intestine can be affected and you may start to experience discomfort (gas, bloating, cramping, etc.) at this point in the digestion process.

Once the small intestine enzymes complete the breakdown of your food, the nutrients are absorbed into your body. This includes vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Anything that is undigested will then enter your large intestine (which is actually shorter at only 5 feet long, but is much wider than the small intestine). Here, water is removed from the undigested food, turning it into solid waste. This solid waste is then excreted appropriately.

Without sufficient enzymes in each step of this process, you will experience digestion problems. Pain or discomfort after a meal could mean you do not have proper enzymes to break down your food, or a healthy stomach or intestinal environment in which these enzymes can work. This is where supplementation comes in. For some people it is helpful and even necessary to take enzyme supplements with each meal.

So next time you dig into a turkey sandwich or juicy burger, chew slowly and thoroughly. It could be the difference between a stomach stuck doing somersaults and a stomach that is calm, full and satisfied!

Can't you just see the amylase enzymes activating in Teddy's mouth as he is about to bite into this bacon cheeseburger??!!


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