Good digestion relies on the digestive enzymes, natural substances necessary for transforming food into muscle and bone. Our bodies contain more than 3,000 different kinds of enzymes, and they are located in each body system. Most digestive enzymes work by breaking something down, such as food. The digestive process starts with enzymes in our saliva, and once food reaches the pancreas, protease enzymes digest proteins while lipases work on fats.
Refined food, stress and aging can affect the body’s enzyme production and activity, resulting in digestive problems. The best way to get enzymes is from a diet high in raw fruits and vegetables (cooking destroys enzymes). Without an adequate diet, we can assist our digestive process by taking enzyme supplements.
Digestive enzyme are available in two forms: plant-derived enzymes and pancreatic enzymes from animals. Microbial fermentations, such as bacteria or fungi, may also be called plant enzymes. Popular plant-derived supplements are combinations of bromelain and papain, from pineapple and papaya, respectively. These enzymes are good general digestive supplements, says John Catanzaro, a naturopathic doctor practicing integrative medicine at the Health and Wellness Institute in Seattle. The plant enzymes digest mostly sugars (sucrase and maltase), fibers (cellulase), and proteins (some proteases).
Pancreatic enzymes, derived from animals, are taken as digestive aids for protein and fat and are more powerful than plant enzymes. A placebo-controlled study from the August 2000 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology demonstrated pancreatic enzymes’ ability to digest fats. The study involved patients with cystic fibrosis, a disease marked by chronic infection of the pancreas and a difficulty digesting fats. Of the seventy-four patients who took the pancreatic enzyme, 91 to 97 percent had a reduction in fat in their stool compared to the placebo group.
Patients needing pancreatic enzymes may complain of diarrhea, constipation, or sluggishness after meals; this means the pancreas isn’t producing enough of its own proteases or lipases, says Catanzaro.
Pancreatic enzymes could worsen a condition if taken improperly. Because of their powerful ability to digest protein, people with ulcers or heartburn should be cautious about proteases. The enzymatic activity of the supplement can start working where you don’t need it—on your stomach, says Lisa Strehl, a naturopath practicing in Carbondale, Colorado. These enzymes shouldn’t be used unless recommended by a doctor after a stool analysis. Strehl may prescribe pancreatic enzymes to former vegetarians to assist them in digesting proteins.
As we age and our metabolism slows, enzyme activity slows as well and the stomach may not secrete as much hydrochloric acid. Stress and mental strain can also inhibit the flow of enzymes. For general enzyme support, Catanzaro recommends taking two plant enzyme capsules, such as bromelain and/or papain, before a meal to fire up the body’s own digestive system. Both he and Strehl also recommend eating bitter greens to encourage the release of digestive enzymes.
Because enzyme activity requires an alkaline-rich environment to function best, a nutrient-rich, high fiber diet, rather than a highly refined diet, is also important. Meats and fast food are highly acidic, says Catanzaro, so consider taking a plant enzyme supplement when eating those foods.
When cooking vegetables, use as little water as possible to conserve enzyme and vitamin content, and cook them only until tender in a covered pot. Avoid soaking vegetables, because water can destroy the enzymes.
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