Nearly 75 percent of the body’s immune defenses are located in the digestive tract, making optimum digestive function the key to overall health. In order to ensure proper digestion, however, your body requires a dependable supply of digestive enzymes—the chemicals released into the digestive tract that can break down food by breaking apart the bonds that hold nutrients together. Without enzymes, digestion grinds to a halt, often resulting in uncomfortable gas and bloating as unprocessed foods begin to ferment in the intestines.

The long-term consequences of a lack of enzymes can produce even more serious problems, leaving you vulnerable to malnutrition as valuable nutrients are excreted without being absorbed by the body. What’s more, undigested food can feed disease-causing microorganisms lurking in the digestive tract. That process produces toxins that the body struggles to eliminate and which may inhibit healthy immune function.

Changing Times are a Challenge

In the past, daily helpings of fresh fruits and vegetables contributed plenty of enzymes to the diet, but times have changed. Nowadays the natural enzymes contained in raw, whole foods have been all but depleted through intense processing techniques and cooking, as well as long periods of storage and transportation. What’s more, the enzyme content of fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets is often compromised by heavy pesticide treatment and exposure to environmental pollutants.

The lack of enzymes in the American diet puts extra stress on the pancreas and other organs, which are forced to work overtime to make up the deficit. However, natural digestive enzyme supplements may be the solution.

Says digestive care expert Brenda Watson, “Taking an enzyme supplement with each meal is one of the most important things you can do to improve your overall digestive health.” That’s because supplementation allows more of the body’s own enzymes to perform other important tasks, including sending enzymes into the circulatory system where they can help break down larger, undigested food fragments that have breached the membrane of the digestive tract. If allowed to reach the blood vessels, these fragments can cause allergies, inflammation and other health complications.

Liberation from Lactose Intolerance

Digestive enzymes can be particularly helpful for people who have problems digesting milk and milk products. The digestion of dairy foods requires the enzyme lactase, which helps break down milk sugar. For those who lack this enzyme and are considered lactose intolerant, eating dairy foods can cause gas and bloating, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and other digestive difficulties. Fortunately, a natural digestive enzyme supplement that contains lactase may provide significant relief for the estimated 70 percent of Americans who suffer some degree of lactose intolerance.

Choosing the Right Digestive Enzyme Supplement

When shopping for a digestive supplement, be sure to choose a formula that contains multiple enzymes. The benefit of a multi-enzyme formula is that it will help break down the wide variety of foods included in your daily diet. For example, protease and papain may be included to help break down proteins; lipase to assist with fat digestion; cellulase and xylanase to help break down the fibrous cellulose in plant cell walls; invertase to assist with sugar digestion; and amylase to help digest starches.

Phytase may also be added to help digest wheat and other grains, allowing important minerals such as calcium to be absorbed more efficiently by the body. Because the digestive tract is a complex environment that varies in levels of acidity and alkalinity, the most versatile enzymatic supplements are made from plant enzymes, which are effective over a broad range of pH levels in the intestinal tract.

Perhaps most importantly, plant-based enzymes continue to be fully functional when exposed to the hydrochloric acid of the stomach on their way to the intestines. The stronger, the better!