In a nutshell, digestive enzymes break down the foods we eat, from complex compounds to the single nutrients within them. The body doesn’t actually use compounds; it uses single building blocks of nutrition. The faster the compounds we eat are broken down, the more readily they are used by our bodies.
Digestive enzymes are produced by the pancreas and are present in our saliva, small intestine and stomach. They break foods down at each stage of the digestive process.
They are also found in many foods, primarily acidic fruits and vegetables, such as papaya.
While we do produce digestive enzymes and can also take them in through our diet, dietary enzymes are broken down somewhat in the digestive process, making them less effective than those we produce. Dietary supplements containing digestive enzymes are more effective than those found in foods because they are able to disperse to the bloodstream before being digested.
When choosing a supplement containing digestive enzymes, it’s important to pay close attention to the enzymes included, especially if you’re seeking a supplement that will help athletic performance, endurance and general fitness. There are numerous digestive enzymes and some are more helpful to athletes than are others.
Three of the digestive enzymes most helpful to athletes are amylase, phytase and protease. When choosing a supplement, try to find one that contains all three.
Amylase is one of the most important enzymes for athletes because its purpose is to break down carbohydrates. Amylase is found in our saliva and begins to break starch down into sugar while we are chewing our food. This is why we feel the effects of eating starchy and sugary foods almost immediately: it begins breaking down while it is still in our mouths. The most important purpose of amylase is that the pancreas also uses it to convert dietary sugar into glucose. Glucose is what gives our cells, our muscles and our brains energy. The body can’t use sugar until it is converted into glucose.
Taking amylase supplements does two things: it converts the sugar we eat into energy more quickly and it also keeps the body from storing too much sugar or converting it to fat stores.
Phytase has a very specialized purpose in the body. Phytase digests phytic acid. Phytic acid is the storage container for the phosphorous found in plants and seeds. Once it is broken down, “unpacking” the phosphorous, the phosphorous can be used by the body. The problem is that phytic acid is not digestible by humans without phytase. A supplement containing phytase helps our bodies to break down phytic acid, releasing the phosphorous into our systems. Phosphorous is in most multi-vitamins, as it helps our bodies use minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc. These minerals are all vital to the athlete, as they keep muscles working properly, especially during workouts or athletics. A lack of these minerals will result in the muscle cramping with which any athlete is all too familiar.
Protease is another digestive enzyme vital to athletes, as it breaks down animal, nut and dairy proteins, making them available for muscle recovery, repair and building. Protease breaks the proteins we eat down into amino acids, which are the building blocks for every single cell in our bodies. Supplemental protease will ensure that the proteins we eat are quickly used to the best effect.
Choosing a supplement that contains all three of these digestive enzymes will help athletes and anyone concerned with performance and endurance.