By Dr. Jean Hofve
Enzymes are proteins in the body that help chemical reactions proceed normally.
There are thousands of enzymes in the body, but only two main types: digestive
and metabolic. Metabolic enzymes are involved in every process in the body, from
energy production to cell repair. Digestive enzymes work exclusively in the
gastrointestinal tract to help digest the food animals eat.
In mammals, the salivary glands and pancreas provide digestive enzymes to help
break down food. In herbivores and omnivores, saliva contains amylase, an enzyme
that breaks starch down into simple sugars. You can test this yourself by
chewing a saltine cracker without swallowing; eventually it will taste sweet.
(Don’t forget to swallow when you’re done with the experiment!) Carnivores,
however, don’t produce salivary amylase; their natural diet contains mostly
protein and fat, and very little starch.
The pancreas, a large gland sitting along the small intestine opposite the
liver, is the main provider of digestive enzymes. It makes protease, to break
down protein; lipase, to digest fat; and amylase, to digest carbohydrates. When
food leaves the stomach, the pancreas secretes bicarbonate to neutralize the
stomach acid, and digestive enzymes, which get churned into the food and break
it down so the intestines can absorb the nutrients.
In addition to pancreatic enzymes, there are other natural helpers for
digestion, which makes sense, since it’s such a crucial process. Every living
cell contains enzymes, and some of the enzymes within each cell are capable of
“self-digestion.” To prevent them from digesting the cell while it’s still
alive, they are packaged inside bundles called lysosomes. When the cell dies,
these packets rupture and the enzymes inside destroy and digest the cell's
"remains." Some of us have seen this exact process occur in the refrigerator
when a bag of lettuce gets forgotten in the bottom drawer. A few weeks later,
what you’ll find in that drawer is a bag of brown liquid - the lettuce has
completely digested itself into water and a few other elements. Raw foods, like
fresh meat, do the same thing; it’s a natural process of decomposition. On the
other hand, cooked foods - in which the natural enzymes have been destroyed by
heat - tend to get moldy. (Some fresh foods, like fruit, also get moldy just to
make life interesting!)
Because heat destroys (“denatures”) the natural shape of enzymes, they become
nonfunctional. In dogs and cats that eat processed pet food, the pancreas is
left without any help and must provide all the enzymes needed to digest the
food. The pancreas is a sensitive little organ, and it doesn’t like being
overworked. So it makes good common sense to do all we can to keep the pancreas
happy. Adding digestive enzymes to our pets’ food is an easy way to do this.
Digestive enzymes for pets typically come in powdered form, making it easy to
sprinkle on or mix with wet food. For most pets, the best enzymes come from
plants or fungi (yeast), because they can survive the trip through the stomach’s
seriously acidic environment (however, some pets do better on pancreatic
extracts). Make sure the enzymes you choose contain at least protease, lipase,
and amylase (many also contain cellulase, which is a bonus if the food contains
fibrous vegetables or grains).
Here are our best digestive enzyme products:
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