Protein is an important macronutrient that is important for growth and development, cell repair, energy production, oxygen transportation throughout the body, and so much more.
There are both "essential" and "non-essential" amino acids. Essential amino acids are those that can't be made by the body, and so we have to get enough of them through our food.
A wide variety of foods contain protein (amino acids) in them: animal-based products like poultry, beef, pork, eggs, offal, bone broth, as well as non-animal foods like beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, sea vegetables, and some vegetables. Ideally, getting a wide variety of these foods in on a daily and weekly basis is a great way to get a spectrum of amino acids.
We need to ensure we're not only consuming enough protein, but digesting it well, to grow, repair, and stay energized.
In this article, you'll learn how to support protein digestion, to ensure your body is able to use it as it needs to!
How to Support Protein Digestion
1. Chew your food thoroughly
The digestion that happens in our mouth is the only form "mechanical digestion" that occurs in the body, otherwise, everything else is considered chemical digestion. This means that our teeth play a significant, and important role in our body's ability to digest. Especially protein.
Proteins are more complex molecules than say, a carbohydrate, and require more energy to break them down.
Chewing protein-heavy meals (and well, every meal) is important to take any unnecessary burden off of the rest of our digestive tract. The more we chew our food, the better broken-down or "masticated" the proteins become, which lightens the load on our stomach, pancreatic enzymes, and brush border enzymes.
Tip for better protein digestion: chew your food until it's almost "liquified" in your mouth. Think baby food consistency prior to swallowing!
2. Support your Stomach Acid Levels
Our stomach acid & the enzyme pepsin work on protein in the stomach. If we aren't producing enough stomach acid, we may not be adequately converting pepsinogen to pepsin. To back it up for a second, pepsinogen is the inactive form of a digestive enzyme that helps to break down proteins, pepsin being the active form.
We require stomach acid to enable this conversion of pepsinogen to pepsin to occur. This important gastric secretion is often depleted during times of stress, in the case of infections like Helicobacter Pylori, and because of dietary limitations.
In the stomach, proteins are broken down (by the pepsin) to create large polypeptides, which are further broken down later on.
To learn more about stomach acid, how you can tell if you may have low stomach acid, plus what you can do about it, then definitely check out this article here.
3. Support your Pancreas
Moving beyond the stomach, into the upper part of the small intestine, the duodenum, our pancreas comes into play.
When the chyme (food that's been processed by the stomach) is released into the small intestine, the gallbladder and pancreas both secrete their juices to both alkalize this highly acidic substance and help digest it further.
Our pancreas secretes specific digestive enzymes that help in the breakdown of protein. These include trypsin, chymotrypsin, and procarboxypeptidase, which work on the longer-chain polypeptides, breaking them down into smaller peptides, and dipeptides.
Sometimes, due to different conditions, or different imbalances, "pancreatic insufficiency" can occur, which means it's not secreting enough enzymes to adequately break down our food. This can often happen due to stress, parasites, bacterial overgrowth, nutrient deficiencies, etc.
Here are some things you can do to support your pancreas:
address any underlying parasitic infections or bacterial overgrowth
focus on getting good quality protein in your daily nutrition (via eggs, organic poultry and some red meat, beans, legumes, organic dairy if you tolerate it)
eat antioxidant-rich foods: berries, herbs, turmeric, dark chocolate, ginger, kidney beans, etc.
4. Support your Stomach Acid Levels
Our small intestine is where the majority of our nutrients are absorbed. There are these tiny finger-like projects (called villi, which have their OWN smaller finger-like projections on them, called microvilli) that live on the entire surface of the small intestine, increasing the surface area of this organ significantly to allow to adequate absorption.
Along this layer in the small intestine are more enzymes, called brush-border enzymes. Some of these enzymes — you guessed it! — help us to break down these protein molecules even further so that they can be absorbed and utilized by the body.
In certain scenarios, the integrity of the intestinal lining, and these brush border enzymes, can become compromised. This can happen in the case of celiac disease, overgrowth, or infection of pathogens in the gut, like SIBO or SIFO. This can occur because of excessive NSAID use, a pro-inflammatory diet, and stress.
If you find you're struggling to tolerate or digest animal (or plant) proteins, struggle with fatigue, low B12 or iron, etc., and want to explore how your gut could be playing a role, then I invite you to check out my programs: