How’s your digestion?

I went to a really interesting seminar recently on digestive enzymes… for over 3 hours I listened to an expert discussing the factors that effect digestive enzyme production and I’m going to share this with you!
The function of digestion is to breakdown the food we eat so it can be absorbed by the body.  Our senses of taste and smell stimulate the release of salivary and digestive enzymes.  Saliva is composed of many enzymes that are involved in many functions; amylase splits polysaccharides, lactoferrin for iron absorption, maltase breaks down maltose, lipase hydrolyses a small amount of the fats, lysozymes breaks down murein (a mesh-like layer of sugars and amino acids), and ribonuclease can return denatured protein to its natural state. To do this we need to produce 1.5 litres of saliva each day, for which we need to drink plenty of water!
The stomach receives and collects the food we eat, and mixes and kneads it to break it down more.  The stomach also absorbs water, simple carbohydrates, alcohol and short-chain fatty acids, as well as producing gastric juice, gastrin and pepsin.  We produce 2-3 litres of gastric juice every day… and that takes a lot of WATER to do!  Interestingly, you need histamine and acetylcholine to produce gastrin so if you have allergies or hayfever you probably won’t have sufficient histamine to make gastrin.  Gastrin is responsible for making gastric acid, growth of the mucosal layer and the release of hydrochloric acid.  Gastric acid is made up of pepsinogen (which becomes pepsin and breaks down proteins), and intrinsic factor (a glycoprotein which binds to vitamin B12 so it can be absorbed in the intestine).  Gastric acid splits minerals so they can be absorbed and kills bacteria, fungi and yeasts.
The stomach propels its contents to the small intestine to complete digestion and absorption of nutrients with digestive enzymes from the intestine wall, the pancreas and the liver/bile.  As I’m sure you know, we need bile to digest fat, and to make bile we need bile acids and salts, bile pigment and cholesterol – so reducing cholesterol by taking statins causes real problems with bile production, and therefore with digestion.
The large intestine is where fluid is extracted and potassium, magnesium and manganese are absorbed and vitamin K is produced before the waste is excreted.  Stools are composed of indigestible remains, mucous, digestive juices, and waste substances.  The brown colour is a breakdown product of bile so if your stools are pale it probably means you have a lack of bile and therefore a problem with fat digestion.
The pancreas has two functions – the endocrine part is responsible for producing insulin, glucagon and somatostatin; and the exocrine part produces pancreatic enzymes and large amounts of sodium bicarbonate.  The bicarbonate is really important because it neutralises the gastric acid in the small intestine so our gut flora can survive and our enzymes work effectively.  To produce sodium bicarbonate we need ZINC – a big problem as our food is so low in this vital mineral.  The biggest contributory factor to digestive problems is STRESS because it reduces production of bicarbonate – so no activation of digestive enzymes – so no digestion = symptoms of sticky stools and bad breath.
Another important factor is the wonderfully named ‘Sphincter of Oddi’.  This sphincter is at the base of the bile duct and the pancreatic duct where it joins the small intestine.  If you’re stressed the sphincter doesn’t open, digestive enzymes build up and can’t enter the duodenum.  Magnesium is needed to relax the muscle (a body, at rest, needs 350mg of magnesium – our daily food gives us 200mg at best).  Causes of spasms of the sphincter of Oddi include too much alcohol, high calorie intake, high carbohydrate intake, stress – work/exercise, insulin resistance, gall stones, inflammation of the gall bladder, smoking and low magnesium.  (Symptoms of low magnesium would include tension in the neck/shoulders, headaches, muscle cramps, muscle twitching, high blood pressure and constipation).
Symptoms associated with lack of digestive enzymes, lack of bicarbonate, or lack of ‘good’ bacteria in the gut are sticky stools, foul smelling stools, fatty stools or stools that float, diarrhoea, bad breath, bloating, headache, lower abdomen pain, exhaustion, endocrine disorders (such as PMS), malabsorption which would lead to nutrient deficiencies, gall stones, fatigue, sleepiness, dry tongue, frequent urination and thirst.
Sorry, this turned into a bit of a longer one than usual! But if you suffer with some of these symptoms or would like to know more, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Written by

Claudia Williamson Registered Nutritional Therapist DipION, FdSc, mBANT, mCHNC Tunbridge Wells, Kent