With Halloween right behind us and Thanksgiving just around the corner, the unofficial start to the season of holiday over-indulgence has begun. It starts innocently enough, a few trick-or-treat candies here and there. Soon we’ll be stuffing ourselves with turkey, dressing, gravy, and pumpkin pie. Next thing you know the plates of cookies and candies appear at the office and the holiday party invites start arriving. Soon it will be decadent meals, holiday sweets and festive drinks everywhere you turn. All this celebrating might be fun, but for many it will come with a price—serious digestive upset. Indigestion, gas, bloating, and changes in bowel movements are as common this time of year as carols playing in every store. But this year, rather than suffer, head off digestive upset before it starts with the power of enzymes.
What are enzymes and how might they help?
Think of enzymes as the spark of life, in that they make all chemical reactions in the body possible. Although our bodies make over 5,000 different enzymes for a huge variety of processes, enzymes are probably best known by the public for their essential role in breaking down the foods we eat. These digestive enzymes, as they are known, are responsible for the chemical breakdown of the foods we eat into their most basic units. Without enzymes we wouldn’t be able to access the amino acids in a piece of chicken or the energy in a sweet potato. Although some enzymes are produced in the mouth and stomach, the pancreas is responsible for producing many of the enzymes essential for digestion in the intestines. It produces amylase to digest carbohydrates, lipase to digest lipids (a.k.a. fats), and protease to digest the proteins we eat. Other cells of the digestive tract also secrete enzymes to break down specific compounds or otherwise aid in the digestive process. When we eat large meals or foods we don’t normally consume we can help take the burden off the digestive system by taking supplemental digestive enzymes.
A good, broad-spectrum digestive enzyme product will contain all the same types of enzymes our bodies produce, including amylase, protease and lipase. You can enhance your digestion further by choosing a product that includes additional enzymes to meet your specific digestive needs. Some good ones to look for are:
Cellulase is the enzyme that breaks down fiber. The human body doesn’t normally produce cellulase but for someone who experiences gas and bloating after eating high fiber foods, a little added cellulase can make a big difference in post-meal comfort. Other good enzymes to look for in a product if you are one who has trouble digesting high fiber foods and/or carbohydrates are pectinase, maltase, hemicellulase and invertase.
Lactase is the enzyme that breaks down the lactose in dairy. About 60% of the adult population worldwide lacks the ability to produce lactase and, for these individuals, consuming dairy products produces symptoms of lactose intolerance. For these people, supplemental lactase can aid in the digestion of dairy products.
DPP-IV (dipeptidyl peptidase IV) is an enzyme that breaks down proteins that are high in the amino acid proline. Gluten (found in wheat, spelt, rye, kamut, triticale and barley) and casein (one of the proteins in dairy) are both high in proline. This enzyme can be especially good for those who are gluten- and casein-intolerant. While DPP-IV is not a magic pill and does not offer protection against the unrestrained eating of gluten and dairy in an allergic or sensitive person, it can help to lessen the blow of accidental ingestion or cross-contamination. Considering that most holiday feasts are minefields of potential cross-contamination and accidental exposure for those with food allergies, DPP-IV is good insurance.
Of course digestive enzymes are only so powerful. To keep your digestive tract humming along as you enjoy your way through the holidays, consider adding in the following tips:
- Eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly.
- Prevent over-eating by focusing on your favorites. Take small servings and don’t go back for seconds of things you don’t truly love.
- Take a short walk after big holiday meals to help stimulate digestion.
- Eat well the rest of the time. Eating your normal healthy diet whenever you’re not actively celebrating will do wonders for keeping your digestion on track.
Grab yourself a bottle of digestive enzymes and get ready to enjoy this holiday season in comfort—digestive comfort, that is.
Meet the blogger:
Heather Pratt is a natural born foodie with a passion for the medicinal effects of food. After several years in a field that just didn’t ‘feed’ her, she went back to school to become a Master Nutrition Therapist. Over the years, she has helped thousands of people to enhance their health using food, through her group classes, her nutrition writing and her one-on-one work with individuals. She currently writes for Natural Grocers as a regular contributor to their Health Hotline Magazine and sees individuals from her office in Carbondale, CO.