Digestive Enzymes

About Digestive Enzymes


We could not assimilate our food without digestive enzymes, but these "micro-miracles allow our bodies to do so much more. Enzymes enable our bodies to break down and absorb the foods we eat, they help manufacture neurotransmitters that allow our nervous system to function properly, they help our body to heal when we are injured, they break down and carry away toxic substances, they purify the blood, they deliver hormones, they help the body to build muscle, and they are catalysts that allow metabolism to take place. There are more than 3,000 enzymes in our bodies, about 22 of which are digestive enzymes.

With regard to digestion, enzymes are present in every step of the digestion process. Three enzyme groups break down basic foods into materials our bodies can utilize: proteolytic enzymes (proteases); lipolytic enzymes (lipases); and amylolytic enzymes (amylases). Proteases break-down the twenty amino acids that compose protein, with each protease targeting a different amino acid. Lipases decompose various fats, including oils, lecithin (phospholipids), and cholesterol (sterols). Amylases break down the various sugars such as: sucrose, milk sugar, and fruit sugar.

Where do our Enzymes come from?


The three main categories of enzymes are: systemic (metabolic), digestive, and food. Food enzymes come from the foods we eat, whereas systemic and digestive enzymes are produced by our bodies. The majority of the enzymes produced by our bodies are systemic, and the human body can produces systemic enzymes as it requires. However, many nutrition experts believe that each of us inherits a specific enzyme potential that can eventually be depleted. In addition, nutrition literature indicates that we lose about 13% of our enzyme potential for every ten years of our lives. Dr. Edward Howell, in his book “Enzyme Nutrition,” states “the length of life is in direct proportion to the rate of exhaustion of the enzyme potential of an organism.” So if we aren’t making up for this eventual shortage through diet or supplements, then certain bodily functions can slowly degenerate and eventually fail.

Before the days of supermarkets and fast food restaurants, we received most of our food enzymes from the foods we ate; foods that were in a more natural state when we ingested them. Now, the standard American diet (or SAD for short!) lacks these enzymes we once relied on. Today, food is commonly cooked, irradiated, processed, frozen, pasteurized, microwaved, and dried, and all this processing tends to destroy the natural enzymes contained within. Moreover, agriculture dramatically reduces the enzyme and nutrient content in soil by using pesticides, fungicides, and inorganic fertilizers. For these reasons, digestive enzyme supplements can make a big difference to our health, as well as a diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Digestive Process


We can gain a better understanding of digestive enzymes by reviewing the digestive process. Digestion starts in the mouth with your saliva. Saliva makes food moist and contains the enzyme amylase which helps to break down starches. In addition to amylase, salivary lipase is secreted in the mouth and this begins the digestion of fat. Next, food enters the stomach where more enzymes do their specialized jobs. Pepsin, or gastric protease, work on the break down of proteins. Rennin is a milk-clotting enzyme, gastric amylase continues with the digestion of carbohydrates, and gastric lipase decomposes fats.

The small intestine is where most of the digestion and absorption occur. Several peptidases are secreted, which break down peptides into their component aminos. Also, several different enzymes work on the digestion of sugars: maltase, sucrase, lactase, isomaltase, and lipase. In addition, the pancreas sends lipase, trypsin, and amylase to the small intestine, which all help to break down protein, fats, and starch.

In addition to digestive enzymes, there are four major hormones that assist the digestive process. Gastrin, in the stomach, assists with the secretion of pepsinogen and hydrochloric acid. Secretin, in the duodenum, assists with the secretion of sodium bicarbonate in the pancreas and it stimulates the secretion of bile. Cholecystokinin, in the duodenum, helps with the release of digestive enzymes in the pancreas. Gastric inhibitory peptide, in the duodenum, slows the churning of the stomach and slows stomach emptying; it also helps with insulin secretion.

Improving Digestion


Dr. Ellen Cutler, an allergy and enzyme expert who wrote the book, “Micro Miracles,” explains that we are all born with a given enzyme potential that represents a limited amount of enzymes we can produce in our lifetimes. She recommends we eat enzyme-rich natural foods and take plant derived enzymes in supplement form. Fresh organic vegetables and fruits are enzyme-rich foods that will enhance digestion. These foods have not been heated, processed, irradiated, frozen, microwaved, or dried, so their enzymes are ready to assist digestion from the moment we start chewing them.

When we begin a meal with a fresh salad or vegetables, or lightly steamed vegetables, we are providing our bodies with enzymes that won’t have to be produced. When we ingest heated, cooked, and processed foods, we are subtracting from our limited store of enzymes thereby making ourselves vulnerable to illness. Problems can develop such as stomach ulcers, constipation, gas and bloating, inflammation, headaches, etc.

Some fresh foods are particularly rich in enzymes. Pineapple provides us with bromelain which helps in the digestion of proteins. Herbs, garlic, melons, seeds, nuts, beans, sprouts, kombucha tea, bee pollen, live cultured yogurt, bananas, mangoes, avocados, and onions also provide a good source of enzymes when ingested. In addition, soy sauce is a very rich source of enzymes, as well as papaya.

Types of Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzyme supplements are manufactured from a variety of sources, including bovine pancreas, papaya, and molds. These supplements sold in health food stores often contain: pancreatin, trypsin, bromelain, amylase, lactase, and other enzymes. Below is a partial list of various enzymes and the specialized functions they are known to perform:

• Amylase – breaks down starch, glycogen, and saccharides

• Antioxidant enzyme – protects us from free radical scavengers; reactive compounds that are potentially harmful to our bodies

• Bromelain – used to treat swelling and inflammation

• Catalase – destroys hydrogen peroxide that can form in our cells

• Cathepsin – helps us digest the meat from animal sources

• Cellulase – used to digest the fiber membrane of plant foods

• Chymotrypsin – helps to digest amino acids and is used in some medical procedures

• Glucoamylase – helps us to break down maltose, the sugar we get from grains

• Invertase – Allows us to digest sucrose

• Lactase – used in helping individuals who are milk sugar intolerant

• Lipase – breaks down fats into fatty acids and glycerol

• Mylase – dissolves starch

• Pancreatin – used for impaired digestion

• Pectinase – breaks down foods such as apples, carrots, beets, tomatoes, and citrus fruits

• Papain – used in relation to gluten intolerance and for some medical reasons

• Protease – breaks down amino acids into their component parts; also used to treat medical conditions

• Trypsin – used for medical reasons, such as to speed the healing of wounds, and for inflammation

Increasing Your Enzymes

Considering that the nutrient values of today’s foods are significantly decreased by things like pesticides, poor soil and growing conditions, processing, heating, cooking, and storing, it is understandable that many people are choosing to take digestive enzyme supplements on a daily basis. Certainly if you have poor digestion or absorption, supplements are a wise decision.

In the past, the research seemed to suggest that people could not absorb and assimilate digestive enzyme supplements. That belief has changed. The consensus is that we do absorb supplemental enzymes through a process called pinocytosis. During this process, enzymes bind with a receptor in the intestinal wall, are absorbed, and eventually released into the blood.

Another controversy surrounding supplemental enzymes is the question of whether or not they can survive the acidic environment of the stomach. However, we now understand that enzymes can remain active for very long periods of time, despite the presence of digestive acid. It is also know that vegetarian enzymes, meaning those derived from plants, remain undamaged in the stomach, so they can reactivate as they emerge from stomach acid and continue their important functions.

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The Low Stress Diet

In her book, “Micro Miracles,” Dr. Ellen Cutler reminds us that if enzymes are not present in the foods we eat, they must be manufactured by the body:

Considering that we all have a given enzyme potential that we inherit, active enzymes present in our food become a significant factor. By eating processed food, we can stress our digestive system because these foods do not contain active enzymes. Dr. Cutler calls this stress, “digestive stress.”

According to Dr. Cutler, a low-stress diet is one that minimizes digestive stress and systemic stress. This diet would ideally consist of organically grown foods that are pesticide free. Significant amounts of raw foods are recommended in at least two of our meals per day, since these are the foods that contain active enzymes.

Highlighting the healing potential of enzymes, In chapter 6 of her book, Dr. Cutler discusses enzyme therapy prescriptions for a number of physical disorders that she feels are a direct result of digestive stress. These disorders include:

• Constipation

• Crohn’s disease

• Ulcerative colitis

• Diarrhea

• Diverticular disease

• Heartburn

• Hypochlorhydria

• Irritable bowel

As an allergy specialist, Dr. Cutler also enlightens us as to how poor digestion can result in food allergies. She explains that undigested food can find its way into our bloodstream where the immune system views it as foreign “invaders.” These “invaders” bind with antibodies and form substances called “circulating immune complexes” (CIC’s). These CIC’s circulate in the blood and lymph where they are consumed by macrophages. When the CIC’s are overlooked by the macrophages, they can grow larger and attach to bodily tissue. From here, immune components, T and B cells, can start destroying healthy tissue while attempting to eliminate the CIC’s. This immune response can create the inflammation, redness, and other problems that lead to more serious health issues in the future.