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The Rise…and Fall of Digestive Enzymes

Enzymes are biologically active proteins which speed up a multitude of biochemical reactions in your body. There are several types of enzymes in the human body. This article is about digestive enzymes.

Does my body’s ability to produce digestive enzymes decrease as I age?

Yes, the digestive enzyme production by your body does decline as you age. This is what most health websites and people will tell you. Did anybody take a minute to explain why? Hmmm…probably not.

Fruits & VegetablesBy the way, before we discuss why, let’s make the situation a bit clearer. We’re talking about endogenous digestive enzymes. These are proteins produced by your body’s internal organs like your salivary glands, stomach, pancreas and small intestine to digest the food you eat.

On the other hand, exogenous digestive enzymes are those naturally present in raw food and those taken in supplement form to aid in the digestive process. Both endogenous and exogenous enzymes break down the food we eat into nutrients that our intestines can absorb. If you don’t have enough endogenous enzymes, your body will not get adequate nutrients from your diet.

Digestive enzymes differ from systemic enzymes both in the time they are taken and their job in the body. Systemic enzymes are taken on an empty stomach so they can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Once there, they act throughout your body to digest unwanted proteins. In contrast digestive enzymes focus solely on food digestion so must be taken right before or as you begin to eat each meal.

Lets look at factors that affect our digestive enzyme production:

    • Body OrgansThe reason for the decline in digestive enzyme production as you age is the deteriorating state of your organs. Especially the organs responsible for producing your digestive enzymes (salivary glands, stomach, pancreas and small intestine). As we age these organs sustain gradual cumulative damage which impairs their ability to function properly.

    • In addition, some diseases target the organs responsible for producing digestive enzymes. If an organ is sick, it will not be able to function properly, which will mean digestive problems for you. Here are two examples:

        • Gluten FreeCoeliac disease is a condition of the small intestine wherein its ability to absorb nutrients is greatly impaired. The small structures on the intestinal surface responsible for absorbing nutrients are destroyed or flattened. Can you imagine the consequences of not absorbing nutrients effectively from the food you eat? How is this linked to digestive enzymes, you say? Well, digestive enzymes are made up of proteins. If you can’t absorb enough protein from your food, your body won’t have the necessary building blocks to make enough digestive enzymes. See the connection?

Digestive Enzymes Produced by Your Pancreas

  • Pancreatic disorders should also be taken seriously. Your pancreas is divided into two parts, the exocrine and endocrine portions. The exocrine portion produces the following digestive enzymes:

    If your pancreas falls prey to pancreatic diseases like pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer or cystic fibrosis, its ability to produce these digestive enzymes drastically diminishes.

  • Poor diets consisting of processed foods that lack nutrients can also diminish digestive enzyme production. Imagine all the wondrous years sitting on your couch devouring all those fast food deliveries. These types of foods demand enormous amounts of digestive enzymes in order to be broken down effectively. This is due to their highly processed nature and the fact that they no longer contain the enzymes inherent in fresh, raw foods.

    In addition, a diet full of processed food causes nutrient deficiencies. Enzymes need minerals as cofactors to help them perform their tasks efficiently. So when your diet lacks nutrients the quality of your digestive enzymes are compromised. You certainly can deplete your own supply of digestive enzymes. Tsk, tsk.

  • Mental StressStress (particularly pathological or bad stress) can exacerbate the decline in enzyme production. If your body is under chronic pathologic (bad) stress, its ability to repair and recuperate diminishes. Your body considers digestive processes a low priority when its dealing with constant fight or flight situations. Consequently digestive enzyme production is put on the back burner. Your fight or flight response is governed by the sympathetic arm of your autonomic nervous system whose main job is to help you react during stressful situations.

    If you manage your stress well and make time for relaxation, your body goes into the rest and digest phase (driven by the parasympathetic part of your autonomic nervous system). This means it prioritises digestion and production of digestive enzymes among other things.

All of the above elements hugely increase the demand for digestive enzymes. Unfortunately, the human body can’t meet all the demands of an aging and stressed out digestive system. Especially when complicated by today’s huge intake of processed, nutrient-poor foods. Cooking and other forms of food preparation destroy the food enzymes naturally present in the raw foods. This is where exogenous digestive enzyme therapy can be very beneficial.

Digestive enzyme therapy is particularly helpful and indicated if you suffer from poor digestive function, malnutrition, enzyme insufficiency or a disease which interferes with the digestive process such as coeliac disease, diabetes and cystic fibrosis.

Some alternative health advocates are actually in favour of enzyme therapy for healthy people. In this case enzyme therapy can help them prevent depletion of their endogenous enzymes.

Note: Whoa there healthy person, before you start pressing digits for your favourite fast food delivery service, enzyme therapy wasn’t intended as an excuse for people like you to feast on processed foods. It was originally meant to aid your digestion of ‘real’ foods. Put down the telephone, please?

Some symptoms and conditions which may benefit from digestive enzyme therapy:
Food sensitivities/intolerances
Indigestion / heartburn
Colitis – inflammation in your large intestine
Excessive flatulence or belching
Anxiety – brain-gut connection
Stress – especially if chronic
Nutritional deficiencies / malnutrition
Crohn’s Disease
Coeliac Disease
Autoimmune conditions – body can focus on making metabolic enzymes instead
Arthritic symptoms – body can focus on making metabolic enzymes instead


Hypochlorhydria is another medical condition that can consistently diminish your digestive enzyme levels, particularly the enzyme pepsin. I separated it here from the examples of diseases I mentioned above because this condition is common.

Simply put, hypochlorhydria is a decrease in your stomach acid (hydrochloric acid or HCl). As you age, your stomach’s ability to produce stomach acid gradually diminishes. Although this condition can also occur in younger people as a result of a disease process affecting the stomach lining or medications which suppress stomach acid production.

How does low hydrochloric acid affect digestive enzymes?

In order to digest proteins in the food you eat, you need stomach acid (HCl). Stomach acid activates pepsinogen (inactive, storage form) to become pepsin. Pepsin is the active form of the enzyme which breaks down protein into polypeptides (smaller chunks of protein). Physiologically, there’s no other substitute for stomach acid to activate pepsinogen. If your stomach can’t produce hydrochloric acid, your body will not be able to digest and absorb proteins. Again, an obvious consequence will be the lack of raw material (proteins) to produce digestive enzymes. ( home test to find out if you have low stomach acid coming in the next few days! )

Digestive SystemAs you can see, the important role of digestive enzymes to a healthy digestive system cannot be overestimated! Digestive enzyme supplementation can be especially helpful as we age, to ensure that we can absorb the most from our food. Supplementation also helps to leave raw materials available for the production of important metabolic enzymes.

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