Digestive Enzymes for Beginners
by Ruth Anna Spooner
Basically, enzymes are molecules composed of a protein, plus an essential vitamin or mineral (for example, a protein + zinc = an enzyme). These molecules, along with coenzymes—sidekicks who help in the digestive process, usually some combination of vitamins and/or minerals—play several vital roles in your body. One such role includes breaking down food so that nutrients can be absorbed in the small intestine. Your pancreas produces enzymes to aid digestion, and you also gain some outside enzymes from the raw, uncooked foods you eat (think raw vegetables, fruits, and so forth).
Various foods derived from plants and animals in their natural form are chock full of enzymes that help your digestion. Raw foods can be powerful aids to your body. However, when these foods are cooked—whether by fire, stove, or microwave—heat destroys the enzymes in these foods. Also, cooked foods lose some of their vitamins and minerals during the cooking process, which forces your body’s enzymes to work even harder with less help.
Without the proper balance of vitamins and minerals in your diet, your enzymes can’t do their job. Certain vitamins and minerals act as triggers that activate the enzymes during the digestive process. If you don’t have enough zinc or vitamin C in your diet, for example, then some of your enzymes will not be activated; this prevents your digestive system from absorbing nutrients and functioning properly.
Insufficient enzyme activity in your system also causes other negative effects on your body. Because enzymes play essential roles in all of the systems of your body (in addition to the digestive system), you need enzymes to keep all of your organs, muscles, and tissues functioning. Your body, however, has only a limited number of enzymes to do all of these jobs. When you eat cooked and/or processed foods—foods that have virtually zero enzymes due to heat and/or chemical exposure—it forces your digestive system to work harder to break down the food into absorbable parts. This requires more enzymes. In order to accommodate this need, your body actually takes enzymes away from your tissues, muscles, and even your brain so that extra help can be sent to the digestive system. This means that to achieve optimal health, you need to eat fresh and uncooked foods regularly, because they, in their raw and natural form, provide extra enzymes to help the ones already in your body.
How can you ensure that you have plenty of digestive enzymes in your body and in your diet? Well, some studies advocate eating more raw and uncooked foods to boost the amounts of vitamins, minerals, and outside enzymes in your body. Some other studies recommend taking digestive enzyme supplements, which can come from fungi, plants, and/or pancreases of livestock animals.* These diets and supplements can provide the extra activation “boost” that your body’s enzymes need to properly process and digest foods.
Digestive enzyme supplements have also been found to reduce inflammation in general, and some doctors in Europe even prescribe them to people recovering from surgery and to athletes who are battling sports injuries. If you find yourself plagued with digestion trouble—ranging from inflammatory bowel syndrome to chronic diarrhea to constipation—digestive enzyme supplements could bring immense relief to your problems.
*One note of caution: Some researchers have expressed reserve about recommending enzyme supplements that are derived from animals because the origins of these enzymes may be difficult to trace. You have no way of knowing whether the animal enzymes came from animals that were raised with steroids, antibiotics, or other growth hormones. Enzyme supplements that have been cultured from plants and fungi, however, work in a wider range of people and are easier to trace, so if you’re interested in taking enzyme supplements to boost your digestive process, more researchers recommend looking for enzymes that come from plant or fungi origins.