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What Are Digestive Enzymes?
It amazes me how many people I see in my practice who are taking supplemental digestive enzymes. I think they’ve all been told that they’ll lose their ability to make enzymes as they age, and that they need to take digestive enzymes in order to digest food properly.
The digestive enzymes we produce naturally help break down food and turn it into the nutrients we need.
I am a firm believer that most of us can have the digestive strength of an 18-year-old, without the help of pills or powders.
The reality is that we make plenty of digestive enzymes, but as we age, the channels they use to reach our digestive tract, including the bile and pancreatic ducts, can become sluggish from bile sludge.
Here, I share some digestive reset insights and strategies so that you don’t risk becoming dependent on supplemental digestive enzymes.
Why People Take Digestive Enzymes
Intestinal irritation from a diet of processed food, food pesticides, environmental pollutants, and stress may congest intestinal villi, disturb the delicate balance of gut microbes, and force toxic material back to the liver and pancreas.
Over time, this can congest the liver and gallbladder .A congested liver can cause bile production to become more viscous and sludge-like. Thick bile can slowly coat bile ducts and congest bile and pancreatic enzymes ducts. Your bile ducts move bile from your liver and gallbladder into your small intestine, but before the bile duct meets the intestine, it joins up with the pancreatic duct in 91% of the population. (Arthur Guyton and John Hall’s Textbook of Medical Physiology) As a result, sluggish liver and gall bladder function can affect the natural flow of digestive enzymes from the pancreas.
When bile ducts, which are quite small, become congested, neither bile nor digestive enzymes can efficiently reach their destination in the small intestines, where they buffer, or neutralize, stomach acids and support digestive breakdown of fats, proteins, and carbs.
In this case, the intestines often send another message to send more bile and more pancreatic enzymes, further congesting the ducts.
Less bile in the small intestine leads to less fat metabolism. Fewer digestive enzymes in the small intestine leads to less effective digestion. Over time, these reactions can compound and begin to weaken digestive fire, cause gas and bloat, and affect the ability to digest foods like wheat, dairy, nuts, seeds, lectins, and a host of other harder-to-digest foods.
Unfortunately this situation encourages the use of, even dependency on, digestive enzyme supplementation.
How We Become Dependent on Digestive Enzymes
If you’re taking supplemental digestive enzymes, you may have noticed two things: first, you digest better when taking them, and second, you realize that you are becoming dependent on them.
You may be thinking, “Am I going to need to take digestive enzymes for the rest of my life?” Contrary to what you might have heard, the answer is no. But again, here is what is happening internally that may have led to dependency:
- Intestinal villi become congested (you can tell because stools are too dry or too loose).
- Toxic material drains from the gut to the liver.
- Bile in the liver becomes congested.
- Bile becomes too thick to flow through bile ducts.
- Thick bile coats pancreatic enzyme ducts.
- Small intestines signal for more bile and enzymes.
- Bile and enzyme ducts end up overcrowded, in digestive gridlock.
- Digestive fire weakens and food intolerances can appear.
- Long-term enzyme dependency ignores potentially serious underlying cause.
Short-term use of digestive enzymes can be okay, but if you find yourself having a hard time getting off of them, consider the side effects and alternatives below.
Taking a digestive enzyme will likely offer symptomatic relief, but will never address the real underlying concern. More importantly, ignoring the root cause can lead to more serious health concerns down the road.
According to Ayurveda, the digestive system is responsible for all aspects of health, immunity, and detoxification. Ignoring underlying symptoms of weak digestion by taking triggering foods out of your diet or masking the symptoms with digestive enzymes can weaken the body’s overall immunity over time. Digesting harder to digest foods, like wheat, dairy, and lectins, is how the body builds immunity,70% of which is made in your gut. These foods are hard to break down, which challenges the digestive system in a good way by having a hormetic effect on the intestinal wall that is responsible for hostingmuch of your gut immunity. Simply taking triggering foods out of your diet only weakens your long-term digestive strength and immune response
See also The Dangers of a Gluten-Free Diet
Possible Side Effects of Supplemental Digestive Enzymes
- Weaker digestion
- Pancreatic enzyme insufficiency
- Blockage of bile ducts
- Blockage of pancreatic ducts
- Digestive distress
- Recurring digestive concern
- Address symptoms, leaving cause to worsen
- Sluggish elimination
- Poor gallbladder function
- Decreased stomach acid production
- Decrease duodenal enzyme production
- Compromised gut immunity
Cleansing can Lead to Digestive Enzyme Dependency
A few years ago, I was honored to lecture with one of the most brilliant natural medicine doctors of our time, Bernard Jensen, PhD. He was in his 90s and after writing 50 books, developing iridology and numerous colon cleansing therapies, was taking 17 digestive enzymes with every meal.
I had so much respect for this man and I could not believe he was on digestive enzymes, let alone 17 with each meal. Interestingly, he had developed the first bentonite clay intestinal cleanse, which I did when I was 18, and the Colema Board, a slant board enema system.
When I heard he was on so many enzymes, I immediately thought of the hundreds of patients I have seen over the years that I’ve called cleansing casualties—folks who have cleansed themselves into having a digestive system that only works if they keep cleansing it.
It became painfully obvious in my practice that you can cleanse out the gut and feel great for a spell, but getting the gut to continue functioning on its own long after such a cleanse is the real test.
I was also struck by the completely opposite approach Ayurveda uses to clean the colon. Rather than irrigating the gut with water, which can dry it out over time, Ayurveda suggests soaking the gut in herbalized oils that have a soothing and lubricating effect.
I also noticed that Dr. Jensen’s belly was largely distended and bloated—a telltale sign that the villi inside the gut and lymph directly outside the gut are congested and compromised.
The intestinal wall, including its trillions of microbes and associated lymphatics, are dependent on a very delicate balance between being too wet or dry. We have all experienced dry skin after a shower. In the same way water can dry out your outer skin, overuse of water colonic irrigation may slowly dry out the villi and cause them to produce excess reactive mucus. As a result, your stools may become sluggish, loose, or both.
Alternatives to Digestive Enzymes
Now that you understand why we may be lacking in these enzymes for digestion, and how you may become dependent on supplemental digestive enzymes, you may be asking, “Why not just decongest the bile and improve bile flow?” My sentiments exactly! Here’s how:
- Eat More Cholagogues
Eat more cholagogues, or bile-movers, such as raw beets, celery, apples, artichokes, and leafy greens. Greens should make up 2/3 of your plate. The cellulose in greens will attach to toxic bile and escort it to the toilet like a nonstop flight! Turmeric has been shown to increase gallbladder contraction by 50%!
- Drink Fenugreek Tea
Fenugreek acts as a lubricant for bile ducts and helps support normal bile flow.
Have cinnamon with every meal. Cinnamon supports healthy blood sugar levels, while also supporting normal bile flow.
- Olive Oil + Lemon Juice
Mix 1-2 tbsp organic olive oil with 1-2 tsp lemon juice. Shake and drink every morning or night on an empty stomach for one month. This will exercise the liver and gallbladder while supporting healthy bile flow in the bile and pancreatic ducts.
- Rehydration Therapy
Drink a big glass of water 15-20 minutes before each meal. This will super-hydrate your stomach, encouraging it to produce more hydrochloric acid and increase the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes.
- Regular Cleansing
Consider regular detoxification of the liver and fat cells, which store toxic material that has been processed through the liver. Regular cleansing, without overdoing it, can help you maintain optimal digestion.
- Herbal Supplementation
Consider regular detoxification of the liver and fat cells, which store toxins processed through the liver. Regular cleansing can help one maintain optimal digestion.
For more information on how to reboot your digestion, read my book Eat Wheat.