It is important to understand that digestion is the foundation of your health and health is the measurement of how efficiently the cells in your body conduct thousands of life functions. These functions are possible only when enough energy and raw materials are present, and digestion is the process that makes these things available. Thus, the saying, “You are what you eat” or “You are what you absorb” should instead be, “You are what you digest.”
The United States Department of Health and Human Services reported in 2014 that over 70 million adult Americans experience chronic digestive distress. Consumer surveys reveal much higher numbers.
While extreme fullness, bloating, belching, gas, acid reflux, indigestion, heartburn, constipation and other digestive complaints are bad enough in their own right, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Because digestive inefficiency reduces the energy and raw materials available to cells, it can undermine every aspect of health.
How Digestion Works
Digestion is the process of breaking foods down to the individual nutrients your cells require. This process is both mechanical and chemical. The mechanics include chewing and peristalsis (muscle contractions in the stomach and small intestine that keep food churning). The chemistry occurs as this churning bathes your meal in digestive enzymes.
Enzymes are catalysts that reduce the time required for chemical conversions. An enzyme discovered in 1998, for example, speeds up a change required for the formation of DNA. With this enzyme, the conversion occurs in milliseconds. Without it, the same change takes 78 million years, making life impossible.
In short, digestive enzymes speed up the chemical conversions that break foods down into their constituent nutrients. Could digestion occur without enzymes? In theory, yes. However, it would take so long that you would starve before your first bite breaks down.
If enzymes are digestion’s primary tools, it follows that digestive problems stem at least largely from enzyme deficiency. Thus, the question is, “Where do enzymes come from, and why don’t I have enough?”
Fresh, whole, raw foods contain digestive enzymes of their own. These enzymes can accomplish up to 70% of a food’s total digestive requirements.
Your salivary glands, stomach, pancreas and brush border villi of the small intestine also make digestive enzymes. These enzymes finish the job that the enzymes in raw foods begin, and must do all the work when we eat cooked or processed foods. When we are young, our digestive organs make enough enzymes to digest virtually any meal. As we age, this may change.
For many years, science thought that we make the same types and amounts of enzymes no matter what we eat and how old we are. We now know this is wrong. Research at Northwestern University proved that we produce digestive enzymes according to the “Law of Adaptive Enzymes Secretion,” or, in English, as needed. In short, the body has an amazing signaling system that tells the digestive organs which enzymes and how many of each we need to break down a meal.
Since raw foods contain enough enzymes to digest 50% to 70% of the foods they are part of, and since your body makes only those enzymes your meal lacks, cooked foods force you to make two to three times more enzymes at each meal. Dr. Edward Howell, who is widely regarded as the “Father of Enzyme Nutrition,” believes this has a profoundly detrimental impact on health.
Your Enzyme Bank Account
Dr. Howell spent a lifetime studying and developing the science of enzyme nutrition. He believed that every living thing was born with a limited “enzyme potential,” meaning that you can make only so many enzymes during your lifetime, and that your health and lifespan is determined by how quickly you spend them. Obviously, raw foods reduces the amounts of enzymes you must spend on digestion, meaning that they help your enzyme “account” last longer.
Not everyone agrees with Howell’s theory of limited enzyme potential. It is clear, however, that we make fewer hormones, fewer neurotransmitters, fewer immune factors and fewer enzymes as we age. This means that that we must either accept poor digestion or increase our digestive enzyme intake.
The Raw Food Conundrum
For 50 years, raw food advocates have touted raw diets as health miracles. Without questions, raw foods are the easiest way to increase the enzyme power we have available for digestion. However, raw foods also have their drawbacks. For example, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda believe that eating too many raw foods quenches the “digestive fire.” There are also issues like bacterial contamination and digesting the enormous amounts of cellulose in the foods we enjoy eating raw.
Even if raw foods were perfect, a half century of advocacy has not moved the needle of American dietary patterns even slightly. For better or worse, we like cooked foods, and most of us are going to keep right on eating them. Fortunately, there is another way to add enzymes to the digestive process. That is by using a digestive enzyme supplement.
What Should I Look For in an Enzyme Supplement?
The human digestive process is exhaustingly complex. An adequate description would take at least 20 pages of single spaced type. Happily, few of us need a PhD in digestion. We just want a primer in the practical side of how to improve the process.
Digestive enzymes are the tools that break foods down. Each enzyme, however, is very specific. In other words, enzymes that proteins digest only proteins, those that digest fats digest only fats, and those that break down carbohydrates break down only carbs. The amounts of protein, fat and carb-digesting enzymes you need to digest your meal depends on how much protein, fat and carbohydrate you eat.
Let’s compare a Keto diet with its Vegan counterpart.
|Keto||36 grams||8 grams||60 grams|
|Vegan||45 grams||100 grams||10 grams|
As you can see, the Vegan plan provides 25% more protein and 12.5 times more carbs, while Keto provides six times more fat. Thereby, as a Vegan, you need 25% more protease and vastly more carb digesting enzymes than those doing KETO, while those on KETO need six times more fat digesters. (Note: A good Keto enzyme supplement will be digest about 25 grams worth of carbohydrate digesting enzymes for each meal because those on Keto plans sometimes eat up to 25 grams of carbs at any given meal).
Proteins are amino acids bound together in long chains. For the quickest, most completion digestion, you need enzymes that will break bonds at both the ends and middle points of these chains. You also need enzymes will work at the somewhat acidic pH levels of the upper stomach, the very acidic pH levels of the lower stomach and the more or less neutral pH levels of the small intestine. This requires at least five different protease enzymes.
Carbohydrates are millions of sugar units bound together. To break down even small amounts of carbs, you need 13 different enzymes. These include both fungal and bacterial amylases, glucoamylase, maltase, invertase, lactase, alphagalactosidase, beta glucanase, cellulase, hemicellulase, xylanase pectinase and phytase.
For fats, you need only lipase. However, it is best to use a blend lipases from different sources.
Other factors can further improve enzyme supplements. Small amounts of minerals may increase enzyme activity. Hardy probiotics help complete digestion after enzymes have done their work. ATP may help “kick start” the digestive process.
Make no mistake about it. If you experience frequent digestive distress, an enzyme supplement could be your new best friend. Just make sure not to skimp, and try to get one designed for the types of meals you actually eat. If you eat a salad made of entirely raw foods, you won’t need a supplement for that meal, but be sure you use one for each meal that includes cooked foods.
Read more on customized digestive enzymes.
Part II coming soon.