Enzymes 101

Enzymes 101

Digestion is something that just seems to happen for most of us. Yet there are times when there can be a health challenge that may interfere with normal enzyme release from the stomach, pancreas and small intestine. There can be low stomach acid that may be a reason for concern. Maybe it's recent gallbladder surgery, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), inflammatory bowel disease, bacterial overgrowth or something else. Even pregnancy can lead to digestive issues.

If you have loose, greasy or foul scented stools, have bloating or cramping after meals or are deficient in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K you just may have an enzyme deficiency.

Raw Versus Cooked Food

Raw foods contain all the enzymes needed for proper digestion. Vegetables and fruits contain their own enzymes that assist in digestion. Milk sugar in dairy called lactose can be difficult to digest for many people. Raw milk already has the enzyme lactase that helps digest lactose. Gluten digestive issues have been on the rise. Getting enough hydrochloric acid in the stomach to break down the gluten protein is necessary before it moves into the small intestine.

Fragile Enzymes

Enzymes are finicky little catalysts. Both heat and chemicals can impact the ability of enzymes to break down nutrients for bioavailability.  Pasteurized foods are heated leaving enzymes unable to do their job. Processed, packaged foods also denature enzymes rendering them useless. Yet much of our meals, snacks and drinks are heavily processed. Even orange juice is pasteurized unless its labeled fresh squeezed. This doesn't mean our bodies can't release the enzymes needed for proper digestion. Combining raw with cooked food in a meal gives your body a little break reducing the number of required enzymes for digestion.

Salads are delicious and so is raw fruit, fresh squeezed juices and smoothies. But if you compare adults' more mature taste palettes to children you can guess who is going to go for the more heavily processed, cooked food. Just look at a kid's meal. Chicken nuggets, mac'n cheese, hamburgers and pizza with fries. And how about the adult meals: popcorn, rice, meat, potatoes, kidney beans and rhubarb all must be eaten cooked. Either for reason of taste and texture or for safety reasons like with kidney beans and rhubarb's toxicity if eaten raw. If you travel to France most of the gourmet foods are cooked: croissants, potatoes au gratin, French onion soup, coq au vin and beef bourguignon. In a perfect world maybe you can attempt to eat mostly raw but then you are missing other components of a healthy cooked meal like the nutrients from grass fed beef, butter, fish (no parasites in cooked fish), sweet potato and that delicious Italian tomato sauce with pasta cooked al dente.

Finding the Root Cause of Digestive Issues

So what happens if you are one of those unlucky ones who suffers from gas, bloating, abdominal pain, nausea or heartburn? Addressing these health issues and then finding a way to overcome them is essential in order to be able to digest and assimilate the nutrients necessary for optimal health. In addition, abnormal cell growth that could potentially lead to disease may occur if the issues aren't resolved. If your child is the one suffering, then you seek to make your child's life better by finding the root cause of the problem.

First you need to find out why you aren't digesting properly. Is it an enzyme deficiency and if so is it an inability to synthesize enough enzymes or is your body not able to activate the enzymes? Sometimes the wrong combination of foods like too many fats and starches can set off your body into a tailspin of malabsorption. Or maybe it's a hydrochloric acid issue. You can visit a gastroenterologist, osteopath or naturopath to try to get to the bottom of your digestion challenges - no pun intended.

Have any of you met someone who insists on eating all alkaline or high pH foods? Many tend to be the healthier options, but focusing solely on alkalinity won't get you too far. Alkaline stomach juices won't trigger pepsin which is an enzyme necessary for the complete digestion of protein. You want stomach acid for digestion.

Moving on to the small intestine in the digestive process may help you uncover an issue. You want to have the right balance of good bacteria or flora in order to allow the small intestine to both move food through and absorb the nutrients that normally are absorbed in this step of the digestive process. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO is becoming more common in individuals who don't have the proper flora balance. This can lead to malabsorption of food and a slower digestive process.

Brush border enzymes are a very important key to digestion. Released by the pancreas, they assist in moving food and bacteria through the digestive tract. Something surprising is that fats can help you prolong the life of the enzyme lipase. Lipase is the enzyme responsible assisting in fat digestion. So removing fats from your diet not only eliminates your body's ability to absorb the fat soluble vitamins A, E, D and K but it also will reduce the life of lipase in your small intestine.

 While waiting days or weeks for your medical specialist appointment, you can attempt to combat your digestive woes by using an enzyme supplement. Then you can work on increasing your hydrochloric acid released by the stomach. Relaxing while you eat and sitting down instead of eating on the go is a good start.  Drinking warm fluids like herbal tea as opposed to cold will also help release stomach acid. Ginger tea helps increase HCl (hydrochloric acid). Zinc deficiency can impact your body's ability to create hydrochloric acid. Also chewing your food well can assist your body in the slow release of HCl needed to properly digest your food.

There are plenty of medical studies available that confirm the use of enzymes as effective in controlling IBS and other medical conditions that compromise digestion. One such example is a study using the enzyme pancrealipase on IBS patients. Of those enrolled in the study, 61% of the patients experienced reduction in all signs and symptoms of their IBS after eating a series of six meals. 

The National Institutes of Health offers a comprehensive summary of digestive enzyme supplementation in gastrointestinal diseases. The conclusion of the summary discusses how enzyme treatment is considered to be a standard of care, however novel therapies using enzymes may present ways to treat other diseases not related to digestive diseases in the future.


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