How digestive and systemic enzymes are an important part of maintaining good health.

Enzymes. These proteins are a crucial part of one’s health. Though they are made naturally in the body and are also in raw foods, retailers should stress to shoppers that supplemental enzymes are important, too. The rationale for why is similar to that of taking a multivitamin: sometimes the enzymes that occur naturally in foods or in the body just aren’t enough.

Types of Supplemental Enzymes
Retailers, it’s important to be knowledgeable about the different kinds of supplemental enzymes that are available. First, we have digestive enzymes as well as systemic enzymes, which are supplemental enzymes that support immune system health and anti-inflammation (1). Such supplements can be made of plant, animal or even fungal enzymes. Vegetarian enzymes, besides being the supplemental enzyme of choice for vegetarians and vegans, are fast acting and help in some of the earlier phases of digestion. Animal enzymes are typically made from pancreatic tissue, and are better for aiding in some of the later phases of digestion, lower down in the digestive track (1). Fungal enzymes are beneficial because they can withstand a wide pH range, such as the extreme acidity of the stomach, and continue to work throughout the digestion process (2).

Let’s Break it Down
First and foremost, enzymes aid in the digestion of food. Our bodies naturally produce enzymes; in fact, that is what is happening when you chew your food. Your saliva produces an enzyme called amylase to help begin the digestion process. The stomach, pancreas and small intestine all secrete different enzymes to help break the food down as it moves through your digestive system.

Nonetheless, some people cannot properly digest their food or benefit from full nutrient absorption. This is where supplemental digestive enzymes can help, especially when the body does not produce all of the enzymes necessary for proper digestion. When that happens, nutrients cannot properly be absorbed and used by your body and food is not completely broken down (leading to unpleasant gastrointestinal issues).

An example of a digestive enzyme is cellulase, which can be taken in supplement form as a vegetarian enzyme to break down the cellulose, or fiber, found in many fruits and vegetables (3). Furthermore, cellulase helps to free the nutrients when it breaks down the fruits and veggies. Lipase is another important enzyme. It is made naturally by the pancreas, but many people choose to boost the amount of this enzyme in their system by taking a supplement. In addition to digestive support, lipase may help reduce cholesterol, support weight loss, and support proper hormone production. Pepsin, made in the stomach glands but also popular in supplemental form, is another important enzyme, and it breaks down proteins. Amylase breaks down carbohydrates while lactase (naturally produced in the small intestine) breaks down lactose (4).

Ensuring proper digestion with the use of supplemental enzymes is important. The process of metabolizing food takes up approximately 80% of the energy our body uses. That means the rest of our energy takes care of anything else. If our body needs extra energy, it must borrow from the store being used for digestion. We don’t want our digesting process to use more energy than it needs, and in our society where processed foods may make up a large percentage of the diet, that very situation may be a reality. In contrast, enzymes can help to speed up and help ensure proper digestion so that our bodies don’t have to work overtime to digest, taking away energy from other precious processes (4).

Less Susceptible to Sickness
Systemic enzymes, also known as proteolytic enzymes, can do wonders for the immune system. They help restore balance in a healthy immune system, while increasing cytokine production. These immune cells are basically intercellular mediators that produce immune responses when necessary (5). A lack of systemic enzymes allows foreign organisms to become too numerous. In addition, think back to the statement earlier in this article that said digestion takes up 80% of our energy. That doesn’t leave a lot of energy for our immune systems, does it? To further illustrate this idea, it is interesting to note that when certain animals are sick, they do not eat. Their bodies are instinctually preserving the energy that would be used on digestion for the immune system to help the animal get better.

If humans take systemic enzymes to alleviate some of the energy that needs to be put into digestion, their immune systems can flourish (4). Another link to digestive health is that undigested food cells are less able to remove toxins from within the cell, and less energy is produced. This could affect every cell in the body, causing fewer white blood cells to be produced. Without adequate amounts of white blood cells, the body cannot fight infection properly (6).

Another explanation for enzymes’ positive effect on your immune system is a reduction of bacteria. Poor diet, improper digestion, lack of waste release or taking too many antibiotics without also taking probiotics can lead to a buildup of bacteria in the body (7). Bacteria causes stress to the body that ultimately weakens the immune system and causes frequent colds (6). Enzymes can help the body maintain a healthy good/bad bacteria ratio by aiding in the proper metabolization of foods and waste elimination.

Evidence suggests that taking a variety of enzymes may strengthen the immune systems of extreme athletes, whose bodies do not protect against infections properly due to the stress and strain that the intense exercise puts on their bodies (3).

Ease Inflammation
Chronic inflammation is a condition that causes discomfort and pain for many people. Studies have shown that pelvic, colon and exercise-induced muscle inflammation is lessened in those taking supplemental enzymes (5, 8). People who are interested in taking systemic enzyme supplements for inflammatory relief should consult their doctor ahead of time, but those most notably related to anti-inflammatory benefits are papain, protease, serratiopeptidase and bromelain (4).

Fountain of Youth
A well-rounded diet is essential for healthy skin. But, evidence shows that enzymes can have a positive effect on visible signs of aging. Though researchers and scientists disagree on the exact causes of aging, we know that it occurs when the body’s protein supply becomes dehydrated. Proteins lose their flexibility, and when proteins in the skin are damaged in this way, the skin loses elasticity and becomes wrinkled. Proteases may help rehydrate the proteins by a process of depolarization. This may reduce signs of aging like wrinkles (9). DicQie Fuller, Ph.D., recommends enzyme therapy to prevent aging from ruining the skin and complexion. She recommends specific doses of amylase, lipase, protease, cellulase, lactase, maltase and sucrose for an effective way to battle aging. She also notes that one of her patients saw extreme improvements in his skin after taking enzyme supplements, and likened them to a fountain of youth (6).

Enzymes have other skin health applications, too. In some instances, taking enzymes can be linked with decreased eczema symptoms, healthier looking skin tone and less severe dark circles under the eyes (10).

Emotional Wellness
There may be a link between enzymes and mental and emotional wellness as well. Research has shown that there are four main nutritional causes of neurological conditions. They include a lack of proteases, inability to digest sugar, hypothyroidism and a diet high in sugar (11). Furthermore, gastrointestinal problems are overwhelmingly common in those who suffer from neurological conditions, and digestive enzymes have a positive effect on gastrointestinal issues. Enzymes also help the body to properly absorb vitamins and minerals, and some research suggests that certain mineral deficiencies are linked to neurological disorders. For example, magnesium deficiencies are connected to ADD, ADHD, anxiety, autism,  depression and Crohn’s disease just to name a few (10).

Another explanation for why enzymes support neurological health is the connection between both digestive and systemic enzymes and yeast. An overgrowth of yeast has been linked to autism, ADHD, skin problems, vaginitis, malabsorption, depression, chronic fatigue and autoimmune syndrome, among other things. Evidence suggests that once yeast is erradicated in children with autism, their symptoms become less severe (10). Enzymes help to reduce yeast because they have the power to break through the tough outer shell of the yeast cells so that the anti-fungal agents can destroy the yeast (7).

Now, let’s talk specifics. Think back to the nutritional causes of neurological conditions. Inadequate digestion of protein leads to inadequate acidity levels in the body, and people with this deficiency are commonly treated with medications such as Xanex. While it is important to remember that enzymes cannot treat or cure diseases, researchers suggest that they may be able to support emotional and mental health. A diet too high in sugar, which is unable to properly be broken down in such high amounts, can lead to depression, insomnia, mood swings and even panic attacks! It would be beneficial to try to find an enzyme to help with digestion and to reduce sugar intake. Finally, if a person’s thyroid is out of whack, he or she may suffer from numerous psychological issues. Certain enzymes, such as amylase, lipase, and protease, can be used to help the thyroid to function properly (11, 4). Furthermore, enzymes help the hypothalamus to function, which has an effect on moods and awareness (12).

A diet high in digestive and systemic enzymes can support relief from anxiety, obsessive compulsion and even hyperactivity (9). There is also evidence that enzymes may have a positive effect on symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome and autism as well as a wide range of other psychological and neurological conditions (11). This is because the neurological system is connected to the immune system and gastrointestinal system. Neurological disorders do not have one single cause that is only related to the brain. Furthermore, enzymes aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients, supporting the effectiveness of medicines and supplements. There have been many cases where parents of children who have neurological conditions began using enzyme supplements. The parents noticed decreases in anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity, and increases in socialization, affection, awareness and problem solving (10). One mother noted that after she began giving her autistic child HCL-pepsin, his stools became normal and his moods greatly improved (13). In fact, there has been a lot of research concerning the relationship between enzymes and autism. Doctors now know that those who have autism suffer from a number of physiological disturbances that need to be treated on a biological level. This does not mean that enzymes can treat autism, but they do support the health of the nervous system, gastrointestinal system and immune system, which are three areas related to autism (10). WF

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Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2011