If you experience bloating and poor digestion, you may need to take a look at whether you’re producing enough pancreatic enzymes.
This is an important step in addressing digestive dysfunction in an organized “north-to-south” sequence. If any single step along the way is out of balance, the entire system will be less efficient and any — or all — of the steps below it are more likely to malfunction.
The pancreas: A busy little organ
About the size of your hand, the pancreas is a multi-purpose digestive organ that secretes about 8 ounces of juices a day into the small intestine.
These juices contain bicarbonate to neutralize the acidity of the contents coming from the stomach, as well as enzymes and hormones critical to digestive function.
Pancreatic enzymes. The pancreas creates enzymes to break down sugars, fats, proteins, and starches. These enzymes enter the duodenum at the upper part of the small intestine.
- Amylase helps break down starches into sugar for energy. Low amylase can lead to diarrhea.
- Lipase and bile work together to emulsify fats. If you are low on lipase, you will have trouble absorbing fat or vital fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Symptoms include fatty stools and diarrhea.
- Protease breaks down food proteins and helps protect against unhealthy bacteria and yeasts in the intestines.
Pancreatic hormones. Unlike pancreatic enzymes that are released directly into the digestive system, pancreatic hormones are released into your bloodstream to communicate with the brain and help regulate the digestive system.
- Amylin and gastrin are primarily made in the stomach, but are also made in the pancreas. These hormones stimulate your stomach to make acid. Amylin helps to control stomach emptying and appetite.
- Glucagon helps raise low blood sugar levels by messaging the liver to release stored glucose.
- Insulin helps your body use sugar for energy. Without enough insulin, your blood sugar levels can rise too high and increase your risk for diabetes.
Food reactivity. Sufficient pancreatic enzyme output is extremely important in preventing food sensitivities. The more thoroughly the gut breaks down foods into small amino acids, the less likely your immune system is to react to them.
Otherwise, undigested food proteins are recognized as dangerous invaders by the gut’s immune system, which can lead to systemic inflammation and food reactivity.
Symptoms of poor pancreatic enzyme production
- Feel like you have a brick in your stomach after eating
- Acid reflux or burning
- Bloating and poor digestion in response to eating starches
- Tend to avoid foods high in fiber or lots of plant fiber, such as big salads
- Pain in lower left rib cage
Three main causes for low pancreatic enzymes
Low stomach acid. When food enters the stomach, the stomach releases hydrochloric acid (HCl). This triggers the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes and hormones.
Low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria) inhibits this process by not sufficiently signaling the pancreas. This is why you must consider whether hypochlorhydria is a factor before moving straight to supplemental pancreatic enzymes.
Remember, working from north-to-south along the digestive hierarchy will assure the best results when recovering gut health.
In many cases, an H. pylori infection plays a role in low stomach acid. H. pylori is a bacterium that burrows into the lining of blood vessels, causing damage and inflammation. This common invader is linked with more serious health disorders such as stomach cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as also increased risk of autoimmune disease.
If you have symptoms of bloating and distension, especially after protein meals, it’s critical to screen for H. pylori and to treat it.
Read here about how to increase low stomach acid and the Apple Cider Vinegar Challenge.
Consistently high blood sugar. The job of constantly pumping out insulin to lower high blood sugar levels eventually exhausts the pancreas. This leads to low pancreatic enzymes and hormones.
Chronic gut inflammation. Digestive enzymes have an anti-inflammatory effect, so the pancreas will secrete them when it senses the gut is inflamed. If gut inflammation is chronic, the pancreas will tire out and be less able to produce adequate enzymes.
Other factors that deplete pancreatic enzymes include aging, chronic stress, poor diet, certain medications, and compromised brain function.
Treating the digestive system from north to south
When you evaluate and address the digestive system using the north-to-south concept, you are more likely to succeed in repairing pancreatic enzyme function and overall gut health.
If you have bloating and poor digestion, or other symptoms of pancreatic enzyme deficiency, make sure to address any issues to the north in the digestive function hierarchy. On the same token, if you have digestive issues to the south of the pancreas, make sure your pancreas is functioning well before tackling those issues.
In my new gut health course, Gut Health: Solving the Puzzle — A top to bottom solution strategy, I address each of these steps in depth, teach you how to recognize symptoms of dysfunction at every stage, and show you how to make the necessary changes to recover gut function.