Aging and Digestive Enzymes
Eating something and having it turn into a nutritious benefit doesn’t happen by magic. It takes digestive enzymes and bacteria in the gut to change that food into useable calories. As people get older, the necessary enzymes slow their production and the helpful bacteria in the intestines may decrease. The latter can happen not just from aging but from specific drugs such as antibiotics. When the process becomes less efficient, digestion suffers because it isn’t completed satisfactorily. Then the individual suffers from unpleasant symptoms such as gas and bloating. As this process goes on, deficiencies in vitamins and even malnutrition can occur. How then can we improve digestion?
Where Do These Enzymes Come In?
When a meal is eaten, enzymes begin entering the food as soon as the mouth produces saliva. This contains two enzymes, lipase and amylase, which starts breaking down the fats and carbohydrates in what you’ve just chewed. As the food travels on, when it hits the duodenum, a hormone, secretin, is produced. Secretin in turn tells the pancreas to add more digestive enzymes as the food travels through the system. These include trypsin, chymotrypsin and pancreatin. Other parts of the digestive system add more enzymes: lactase and cellulase. All told, when these enzymes decrease with age, digestion suffers.
What Can Be Done to Replace the Necessary Enzymes?
Raw vegetables and fruits contain some natural enzymes for digestion, but this is not always a satisfactory solution. People may not eat enough or these foods lose benefits by cooking. Taking enzyme supplements can help. In a double-blind, cross-over study the test group took artificial pancreatic enzymes after a high calorie, high fat meal. Symptoms of gas and bloating were significantly reduced in the test group but not in the controls who took a placebo.(1) The researchers thought perhaps the supplementary enzymes might help those with irritable bowel syndrome. Similar studies found enzyme supplementation benefits in reducing inflammatory caused-diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus erythematous. (2) Enzymes are one answer for how to improve digestion. Now, let’s take a look at anothe important digestion aid.
Replace Missing Healthy Bacteria with Probiotics
Several species of important bacteria live in the intestines and aid in digestion. The most significant are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. These can diminish from multiple causes in addition to aging: stress, poor dietary intake, drugs, even travel. Probiotic supplements for these bacteria are available in health food stores and drugstores. Most of them may not be as effective as one might think. These products all contain supposedly live bacteria which are needed to replace the lessened ones in the digestive system. However, many of the cells die during the manufacturing process or from sitting long periods on the shelf. Sometimes the helpful organisms don’t make it past the acids in the stomach. Newer research is focusing on another probiotic, Bacillus coagulans. This particular bacterium produces spores, which are only activated during the digestive process because the spore casing protects the bacteria itself. In a double-blind, eight-week trial with patients suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, taking this bacterium resulted in noted decreases in abdominal pain and bloating whereas the placebo group showed no changes. (3) Other studies appear to be confirming similar benefits.
Taking digestive enzymes before a meal and supplementing with a more resistant type of probiotic has the potential to increase healthy digestion and possibly improve some conditions.
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(1) Suarez, F., et al., “Pancreatic supplements reduce symptomatic response of healthy subjects to a high fat meal.” Digestive Diseases and Sciences, 1999 Jul; 44(7):1317-21.
(2) Nouza, K., “Systemic enzyme therapy in diseases of the vascular system.” Bratislavke Lekarske Listy. 1995 Oct 4:134(19):620-4.
(3) Hun, L., Pizzolo, C., Simon, A., “A randomized, double-blind, parallel, placebo-controlled clinical trial to evaluate the effects of a marketed medical food probiotic preparation on symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.” Ganeden Biotech 2005 (submitted for publication).