Eating is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures. We love to savor the aroma and taste of a delicious meal that satiates and nourishes us. Properly digested meals bring us vibrant health and vitality, yet poorly digested food depletes us of energy and creates nutrient deficiencies and toxic buildup that lead to illness and rapid aging.

The key to efficient digestion and health lies in the nutrient and enzyme content of the food we ingest and our body’s ability to break the food down into components we can utilize for nourishment and energy for growth and maintenance. Enzymes are proteins that provide the spark necessary for every chemical reaction in our body and the normal activity of the cells, tissues, and organs. There are an estimated 3,000 enzymes that perform a myriad of functions. Nutrients and hormones are useless without enzymes to catalyze them into action.

In the 1930’s Edward Howell, MD, author of the groundbreaking work “Food Enzymes for Health and Longevity” was the first to identify and study the essential role that enzymes played in the body. He noted three types of enzymes: enzymes that naturally occur in live food, enzymes made by the body to digest food, and metabolic enzymes produced by the body for running all metabolic processes. Enzymes are required for breathing, thinking, talking, moving, reproduction, growth, healing, detoxification, immune response and hormonal balance. We are born with an enzyme reserve to draw upon throughout our lives, and while we are capable of producing our own enzymes, this ability decreases beginning at age 27 and declines dramatically as we age. Nature intended that we obtain most of our enzymes for digestion from live foods, enabling our body to use its own enzymes for essential metabolic functions. Insufficient dietary enzymes deplete our body’s enzyme reserves and prevent optimum health.

Food enzymes, or plant enzymes, are found in all raw plants and are also available as supplements. They include protease for digesting protein, amylase for breaking down complex carbohydrates, lipase for digesting fats, disaccharidases for digesting simple sugars, and cellulase for breaking down fiber. Nature provided plants with enough enzymes for us to digest the nutrients contained within them. The action of chewing breaks down the cellulose (fiber) in food and releases the enzymes which then go to work. In a similar action, when fruit falls from the tree the impact causes bruising which releases enzymes that decompose the fruit and return nutrients to the Earth.

Plant enzymes are activated to work in a broad pH range of 3 to 9 so they are effective in both an acid and alkaline environment enabling them to work in the mouth, stomach and intestines. Adequate water and certain vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, magnesium and zinc are required to activate many enzymes. They are also easily destroyed by heat above 118 degrees F. Cooking, pasteurization, canning, microwaving and irradiation destroy enzymes. Genetically modified produce designed to look flawless weeks after harvesting are deficient in the enzymes needed to break them down. The enzyme content in plants declines by 50% within days after picking. Seeds, nuts, beans and grains have enzyme inhibitors which prevent them from sprouting until they embed in moistened soil. These foods must be soaked in water for at least 8 hours to release the enzyme inhibitors so they may be digested. The enzymes in animal foods such as meat, eggs and dairy are destroyed by cooking, and consequently are difficult to digest. Synthetic and processed foods may contain no enzymes at all and are toxic to the body.

Drugs and other chemicals can also harm enzymes. In the early 1900’s salicylic acid (aspirin) was added to foods to destroy enzymes to extend shelf life. This practice was discontinued when it was discovered that aspirin had a disintegrating action on the blood and damaged the kidneys and liver. Today, aspirin is prescribed as a blood thinner, though it is known to cause bleeding and erosion of the stomach lining and intestines, as do many other anti-inflammatory medications.

Enzymes produced by the body for digestion are called digestive or pancreatic enzymes because they are secreted mainly by the pancreas but are also produced in the mouth, stomach and small intestines. There are approximately 22 pancreatic enzymes including amylase, lipase, and proteolytic (protein digesting) enzymes such as protease. Pancreatic enzymes and animal derived enzyme supplements are only active in the alkaline range of 7 to 9 pH in the small intestine.

The digestive process is initiated by the hypothalamus which responds to hunger by signaling the digestive system to prepare to receive food. The scent or thought of food stimulates our mouth to water and stomach juices to flow. Digestion begins in the mouth when food is chewed. This releases the enzymes in raw food and causes the salivary glands to secrete saliva which moistens the food and provides amylase to break down starches and complex carbohydrates. Fat digesting lipase and some protein digesting protease are also secreted. Adequate chewing is required to release the cellulase enzyme in the plant that digests fiber or gas will result. As the food is swallowed it enters the upper cardiac portion of the stomach where it stays for about an hour. It is here that the plant enzymes in the food, activated by the 5 to 6 pH environment, predigest the meal. With adequate food enzymes up to 60% of carbohydrates, 30% of fats and 10% of protein will be digested at this stage. After about an hour, the stretching of the stomach signals the parietal cells of the stomach to secrete HCl (hydrochloric acid) from the blood to acidify the predigested food to a low pH level from 3 to 1.5. This low pH temporarily deactivates the plant enzymes and the food passes into the lower pyloric section of the stomach which triggers the secretion of pepsin to continue protein digestion if the food is sufficiently acid.

By age 50 HCl deficiency is common, especially if the body is too acidic and struggling to maintain blood alkalinity. This will cause the body to retain its hydrogen acid ions required for HCl production reducing the body’s capacity to digest protein. The undigested protein creates more body acidity which perpetuates the problem and can degrade the protective mucosal lining of the stomach, producing a painful burning sensation. Antacid drugs neutralize the acid in the stomach needed to digest the protein. This may ease the burning symptoms, however, more serious health problems will result.

The partially digested acidic food called chyme passes from the stomach through the pyloric valve into the upper portion of the small intestine, the duodenum. This signals the pancreas to inject needed enzymes into the duodenum along with an alkalizing substance of bicarbonate donated by the blood to neutralize the acidity of the chyme and reactivate the food enzymes enabling them to resume work. At the same time the liver/gallbladder injects alkalizing bile salts into the duodenum to degrease the fats so they become water soluble and can be broken down by the fat digesting lipase enzyme.

If the chyme from the stomach is not acidic enough than the alkalizing salts and water are removed from the bile ant return to the blood which thickens the bile and causes the formation of gallstones in the liver and gallbladder. This contributes to high cholesterol, hypertension, heart disease and bowel issues.

Plant enzymes work in the mouth and stomach where they predigest foods. They also operate in the small intestine where they assist the pancreatic enzymes in continuing the digestive process. Large amounts of pancreatic enzymes are needed when there are not enough plant enzymes present in the food to sufficiently digest the meal. A diet lacking in plant enzymes greatly stresses the pancreas which then has to struggle to meet the demands of enzyme production. This causes the pancreas to enlarge and malfunction creating digestive disturbances, blood sugar imbalances, and can lead to pancreatitis.

Digestion continues in the next section of the small intestine called the jejunum where disaccharidase enzymes are secreted by the microvilli of the intestinal wall to continue the digestion of complex carbohydrates. These enzymes include maltase for digestion of grains, lactase for milk sugar, and sucrase for sucrose. Most of the food has now been broken down into particles small enough to pass through the gut wall into the bloodstream for nourishment by the cells. Deficiency in these enzymes will produce gas, bloating and bowel disorders. Gluten grains can irritate the microvilli and cause inflammation. Severe gluten intolerance is celiac disease, however most people are unknowingly sensitive to gluten to some degree.

Final stages of digestion occur in the ileum portion of the small intestines where remaining nutrients such as vitamin B12, amino acids, sugars and some fatty acids are absorbed through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream and lymph. Food particles not completely broken down for absorption through the gut wall hang out in the intestines and produce very toxic substances that are absorbed into the bloodstream. This is called leaky gut syndrome and requires the immune system to clean up the blood of these toxins which cause allergies, fibromyalgia, autoimmune disorders and other health issues. White blood cells utilize enzymes to engulf toxins in the blood and carry them through the lymph system to be eliminated. The white blood count can be easily elevated by eating a fast food diet.

Movement of undigested material slowly advances into the large intestine where it is mixed with water and stored before elimination. In a healthy person, the ileum and large intestine are home to a colony of beneficial bacteria obtained naturally from fermented foods. These microflora (acidophilus, bifidus, etc.) comprise approximately 80% of the total cells in our body and are critical to a healthy immune system. The microflora obtain nutrients from the undigested dietary residue and protect us from harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi/yeasts such as candida. These essential bacteria are destroyed by drugs such as antibiotics, heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

From 18 to 24 hours after ingesting a meal, the waste products from that meal should be eliminated with a well formed bowel movement. Slower transit times cause a buildup of toxic waste in the colon which putrefies creating poisons that place a tremendous burden on the kidneys, liver, lungs, skin, and immune system setting the stage for infection, inflammation, hormonal imbalance and degenerative diseases.

Digestive enzyme supplements should be consumed with cooked or processed foods. If health issues are present they should be consumed with raw foods as well. Howard Loomis, Jr., D.C. studied with Dr. Howell and expanded the research on enzymes. Author of “Enzymes: The Key to Health” and founder of the Loomis Institute, Dr. Loomis developed a system of recognizing food enzyme deficiencies and created a line of potent enzyme formulations to correct imbalances and support healing based on individual needs. I have had great success with these formulas both personally and with clients.

Foods you crave or avoid are often the ones that you cannot digest. Foods to which you are sensitive are also challenging to digest. These foods indicate the particular enzyme(s) in which you may be deficient. Each enzyme deficiency presents a particular set of symptoms and pathology. The appropriate enzyme supplements can greatly improve digestion and health. Protein plays a major role in cell repair, hormonal balance, mineral absorption, immunity, organ function and pH. Signs of protein deficiency due to protease deficiency include acne, anemia, indigestion, HCl deficiency, constipation, cancer,liver/gallbladder dysfunction, blood clots, thyroid imbalances, gout, back problems, bone spurs, edema, weak kidneys, excessive thirst, nighttime muscle cramps, bleeding gums, TMJ, chronic fatigue, hypoglycemia, joint pain, adrenal stress, cold hands and feet, infections, pancreatitis and reproductive issues.

Poor carbohydrate digestion due to amylase deficiency can lead to blood sugar imbalance, asthma and other allergies, eczema, psoriasis, herpes, gluten intolerance, adrenal weakness, depression, anxiety, poor memory, weight problems, rounded upper spine, speech impediment, joint and muscle stiffness, dry eyes or mouth, itching, throat, tongue or mouth sores, allergies to bee stings, bug bites or poison ivy/oak.

Fat digestion depends on lipase which plays an important role in cardiovascular health and transport of glucose into the cells. Lipase supplementation is recommended for diabetes, burping or nausea after meals, gallstones, varicose veins, intolerance of fatty or spicy foods, recurrent viral infections, high cholesterol or triglycerides, hypertension, and tremors.

Conditions that respond to disaccharidase supplementation due to inadequate sugar digestion are diarrhea, abdominal cramps, body odor, lung problems, environmental illness, mood swings, seizures, insomnia, panic attacks, aggression, bipolar disorder, ADD, hyperactivity and nightmares.

Conditions that respond to cellulase supplementation include fungal/yeast infections, candida, gas, bloating, food allergies, facial pain, neuralgia and Bell’s palsy.

Food enzymes support the delivery of nutrients to the cells and should always be taken with nutritional supplements for optimum assimilation. Enzymes can also be taken between meals for infection, detoxification, inflammation, scar tissue and arterial plaque. Taking enzyme supplements will not adversely affect the pancreas’ ability to produce enzymes. It will spare the pancreas the stress of having to compensate for inadequate predigestion due to a lack of food enzymes. More enzymes will then be available to the body for essential metabolic functions and achievement of optimum health.