an image of assorted raw fruits

Raw fruits and vegetables are rich sources of digestive enzymes

Does eating organic food mean we’ll be healthy, wealthy and wise?  If only it were that easy… Before we can absorb anything, our body must break down what we eat into smaller pieces.  It’s that “breaking down” process that extracts nutrients, so they can be assimilated.  Until that happens, not much we put into our mouths does us any good.

It’s the hardworking enzymes that make that happen for us.

Enzymes are catalysts, spark plugs that initiate chemical reactions in our body.  Enzymes are both metabolic (systemic) and digestive.  Metabolic enzymes instigate various chemical reactions in cells including energy production and detoxification.  It’s the digestive enzymes needed to activate metabolic enzymes we’ll talk about here – digestive enzymes such as amylase to digest starches, protease for proteins, lipase for fats, lactase for dairy and cellulase for cellulose or fiber, maltase for grains and sucrase to break down sugars.

Just by living, we hamper the work that enzymes do.  Stress, medications, pollution and lifestyle choices such as cigarette smoking make enzymes struggle more.  And as we age, enzymes fight an uphill battle.

If enzymes don’t succeed in breaking down food, it spoils inside us and may get re-absorbed and re-circulated in the body hurting the liver and immune system.  Sometimes when our food spoils inside us it can lead to disease, especially autoimmune disorders such as arthritis and fibromyalgia.

And when the body has to labor to digest food, energy is diverted which might otherwise be used to stimulate our brain, or help us repair tissues, organs and cells.

In 1930 Dr. Edward Howell wrote Enzyme Nutrition: The Food Enzyme Concept and stated that “The length of life is inversely proportional to the rate of exhaustion of the enzyme potential of an organism.”  According to Dr. Howell, each of us has an “enzyme bank account.”  We take enzymes out of our bank account for normal digestion and for emergencies caused by things like viruses or emotional crises.  Dr. Howell advocated making “deposits” through supplementation.  He believed that the enzymes available to us in raw fruits and veggies are usually only enough to digest their own particles.

Others believe that there are foods that add to that enzyme bank account (foods like avocados, fresh pineapples, fresh papaya and mangos).  Naturally cultured vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi and sprouts are said to be a rich source of enzymes.

Speaking of sprouts, raw seeds and nuts contain enzyme inhibitors which neutralize some enzymes our body produces.  Raw peanuts, for example, are said to contain an especially large amount of enzyme inhibitors.  Raw wheat germ is another food that makes enzymes work harder.  In addition, egg whites, all peas, beans and lentils and potatoes affect enzymes somewhat.  (The enzyme inhibitor in potatoes is concentrated in the eyes of the potato.) What can you do about those enzyme inhibitors?   When you cook food, the enzyme inhibitors are destroyed, but so, then, are the enzymes!

The second way to neutralize the enzyme inhibitors is to soak, rinse and germinate or sprout the food (remember that we said sprouts are a rich source of enzymes?).  Not only does sprouting food destroy enzyme inhibitors, but it also increases the enzyme content from a factor of 3 to 6.  Can you soak and sprout things like raw peanuts?  Of course, if they haven’t been treated with fumigants or mold inhibitors.

Another way to neutralize enzyme inhibitors in food is by fermentation (cultured veggies, kimchi).  Fermentation adds a host of beneficial micro-organisms to food, making them more digestible and increasing the healthy flora in our intestinal tracts. 

The simplest way to lacto-ferment grains and beans is by adding whey or yogurt and water, and letting them stand for at least seven hours. Beans should ideally stand for twelve hours or more.

Do I do this?  I can’t find the time to lacto-ferment or sprout!  I appreciate that others make products that I can buy.  And I like my nuts roasted anyhow.  I still eat peas and potatoes, but I take an enzyme with my meal.

Kefir is another fermented product is rich in enzymes.  (I actually take my supplements with kefir.)

Another source of enzymes is nutritional yeast (aka brewer’s yeast), one of my favorites!  Nutritional yeast is also rich in the B vitamins – the nerve and stress vitamins and it doesn’t encourage the overgrowth of yeast or candida in our bodies).

According to German researchers in the 1880’s enzymes taken orally, in addition to helping break down food, also help improve circulation, decrease the rate of inflammation from injuries and aid in rehabilitation.  After oral ingestion, enzymes could be detected in the lip of a wound!  Enzymes were demonstrated to dissolve blood clots as well as normalize blood flow equilibrium.

Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, maintains that almost all disease derives from poor digestion.  Rather than take digestive enzymes tablets, Ayurveda uses fresh herbs like ginger, coriander, cardamom, cumin or turmeric to aid digestion.  Ayurveda considers dairy “holy” and recommends boiling milk from cows that are grass-fed, letting it cool, and then adding a digestive spice.

Alternatively, Ayurveda suggests mixing ½ cup yogurt (the real deal with live cultures) together with ½ cup water and cumin seeds to make a drink taken with or between meals.

So adding to that enzyme bank can be, but doesn’t have to be by means of a supplement.  There are foods to use, there are herbs to try.

According to Anthony Cichoke in The Complete Book of Enzyme Therapy, anyone with dull skin, acne, eczema, skin cancer, wrinkles, scars, stretch marks, brown spots, or fungal infections such as athlete’s foot, would be wise to explore enzyme therapy.  Lack of enzymes have been linked to a variety of health problems such as heart disease, depression, allergies, arthritis, fatigue, malnutrition, leaky gut, bloating and gas.

Regular use of digestive enzymes with meals is said to help one shed excess pounds.  Why?  Well, remember when you were young and lean?  Your body produced quarts of digestive juice to help you handle everything you ate.  That juice speeded up metabolism.  As we age, our bank account of digestive enzymes dwindles, and it’s up to us to add enzymes back.

When you take enzymes dictates what they’ll do for you.  Taken prior to or with a meal, they break down foods, freeing nutrients for absorption and use by the body; taken between meals, enzymes absorb into the bloodstream and break down toxins at the cellular level.

Taken together with other medicinal substances, enzymes enhance their activity, absorption and bio-availability.

During this busy holiday season, many of us will be taking digestive enzymes (or eating enzyme-rich foods at the start of a meal).   We’ll use herbs or spices mentioned above.  We’ll try and chew food well since enzymatic activity begins in the mouth.  We promise not to eat on the run, or late at night.   When we all see one another, let’s compare notes, and tell us how you’re doing!

One caution:  If you have gastric or duodenal ulcers, or if gastric irritation occurs after the use of any digestive enzyme supplement, discontinue.

From Debra Stark