Nutrition

What Is Pepsin, and How Does It Benefit Digestion?

To benefit from healthy food, you need to properly digest it. Pepsin aids digestion and helps your body absorb vital nutrients.

SUMMARY

Pepsin is required for digestion in the stomach — it’s an enzyme that helps break down proteins. Also, pepsin benefits health by killing harmful microbes and supercharging the body’s ability to take in nutrients. The body naturally produces the pepsin enzyme; if you want to boost pepsin function, you also have the option of taking a supplement. 

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Eating nourishing food is essential, but that food won’t do much good if your body isn’t properly digesting it. 

That’s why pepsin is integral. This enzyme works overtime to help the body digest food. It’s especially vital for the assistance it provides in breaking down proteins that are hard to digest. 

So, what does pepsin do for your overall health? Where is pepsin produced? And should you take a supplement to boost pepsin function? Let’s dive in. 

In this article, we will:

  • Explain what pepsin is 
  • Discuss the role pepsin plays in the body
  • Explain where the pepsin enzyme comes from
  • Discuss the relationship between pepsin and gastric reflux
  • List key pepsin benefits
  • Let you know how to tell if you’re low on pepsin
  • List common causes of low pepsin levels, and explain whether you can raise these levels naturally
  • Discuss pepsin dosage and supplementation
  • List pepsin side effects and precautions

What is pepsin?

Pepsin is an aspartic protease. And like gastric lipase, pepsin is a digestive enzyme. It helps your body digest the food it needs to live and thrive. 

So, pepsin benefits food digestion. But what is digestion all about, and what does it entail?

Your body breaks down large food particles into smaller nutrients necessary to support growth and cellular repair; these nutrients also provide the body with the energy it needs to function. This process is known as food digestion. Digestion begins when food is eaten, and it ends when waste is excreted. 

What does pepsin do?

Pepsin breaks down food and aids digestion. It’s of particular benefit to protein digestion. It breaks down proteins, converting them into smaller units known as polypeptides (peptides for short). 

Proteins are found in various foods, such as meats, eggs, dairy products, nuts and seeds. These proteins contain amino acids. Pepsin breaks down these proteins by dissolving the bonds of their amino acids 

Where is pepsin produced, and where is it found? 

Your stomach produces pepsin. It’s found in the stomach acid secreted by this organ. Pepsin secretion begins in the gastric gland, a tubular structure located in various regions of the stomach. 

The stomach secretes compounds that aid digestion. Collectively, these compounds are known as gastric juice; this liquid is also called stomach acid or gastric acid. Gastric juice contains these substances:

  • Water
  • Mucus 
  • Hydrochloric acid (HCI)
  • Pepsin
  • Intrinsic factor

Of the five elements contained in gastric juice, pepsin holds the distinction of being the primary enzyme involved in protein digestion. Pepsin benefits digestion by breaking down each protein (via enzyme activity) into a smaller peptide or amino acid. This allows the nutrients that the food proteins contain to be more readily absorbed and assimilated by the small intestine. 

Another critical component of gastric juice is hydrochloric acid, and this digestive liquid supports pepsin function. Maintaining adequate stomach acidity is essential. It’s necessary to maintain a pH balance within the stomach that promotes pepsin function and digestibility. Pepsin needs an acidic environment to digest protein — it works best at a pH of around 1.5 to 2. 

What’s the relationship between pepsin and gastric reflux?

As we’ve mentioned, stomach acid contains pepsin. Gastric reflux occurs when a retrograde flow of stomach acid causes it to enter the esophagus. This can develop into a chronic condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Also, there’s a similar condition known as laryngopharyngeal reflux or extraesophageal reflux. With laryngopharyngeal reflux, stomach acid flows past the esophagus and up the larynx. 

GERD and laryngopharyngeal reflux can cause unpleasant symptoms. These include hoarseness, burning in the chest and a chronic cough. Even worse, these conditions can cause critical damage to the esophagus and laryngeal mucosa. 

Conditions like GERD occur when there is dysfunction with the lower esophageal sphincter valve. If this valve weakens or relaxes when it’s not supposed to, it can cause stomach acid to travel to the esophagus and beyond. This problem with the sphincter valve can be caused by conditions such as inflammation, obesity or hernias. 

Pepsin benefits

So, what is pepsin good for when it comes to wellness? And what does pepsin do to support your health journey? 

Here are some vital pepsin benefits:

  1. Helps the body break down proteins that are hard to digest
  2. Prevents indigestion and leaky gut
  3. Stimulates the production of bile
  4. Supports the detoxification of the liver
  5. Boosts nutrient absorption 
  6. Helps ward off nutritional deficiency
  7. Neutralizes the effect of enzyme inhibitors that are naturally present in foods such as egg whites, nuts, seeds, wheat germ, peanuts, potatoes and beans
  8. Kills bacteria in the stomach
  9. Separates vitamin B12 from protein so it can be effectively utilized by the body

How can you tell if you need more pepsin?

If you have low levels of stomach acid, you also likely have low levels of pepsin. This condition can cause these symptoms:

  • Bloating 
  • Gas
  • Indigestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Leaky gut
  • Stomach pain
  • Difficulty absorbing nutrients such as vitamin B12 and iron

What causes low pepsin, and can you raise it naturally? 

As mentioned, the body naturally produces pepsin. So if all is well, you’ll have enough to support proper digestion. But certain conditions can harm the production of stomach acid. This can, in turn, result in lower pepsin levels. 

These factors can play a role:

  • Age — Your body secretes less stomach acid as you grow older.
  • Stress — Chronic stress can harm your body’s ability to produce stomach acid. 
  • Smoking — Smoking can diminish your body’s supply of nutrients, which can ultimately cause the body to create less stomach acid. 
  • Alcohol — Alcohol consumption can reduce the body’s store of nutrients and lessen its ability to produce stomach acid. 
  • Inadequate vitamins — A diet that lacks iron, zinc and B vitamins can inhibit stomach acid production. 

So, can you raise the body’s pepsin production naturally? In a 1995 trial, a high-fat ketogenic diet boosted the body’s pepsin production. 

Pepsin dosage and supplementation

When packaged as a supplement, pepsin is sometimes paired with betaine hydrochloride (betaine HCL). Some supplements containing betaine HCL with pepsin are available only by prescription; with these, your doctor will determine your pepsin dosage. 

With pepsin supplements, a single capsule typically contains about 20 mg of this enzyme. A common dosage is one capsule per day. 

Porcine pepsin is often used to make supplements. This pepsin is derived from the stomach mucosa of pigs. 

Pepsin side effects and precautions

Some people may experience side effects when taking pepsin. These include things like nausea, indigestion, abdominal pain and diarrhea. These side effects typically occur if you take too much in a single dose. 

Next steps

Pepsin benefits health in many ways; most notably, it can help your body absorb the nutrients it needs to flourish. If you think you need more of this enzyme, head to your local grocery store for a pepsin supplement. 

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