Maria Teresa De Donato, Ph.D., RND, CHom

Despite the old saying going “We are what we eat” the true of the matter is that we are what we are able to digest and absorb. In fact, unless the food we eat can be both digested and absorbed, their nutrients cannot accomplish their purpose, that is to nourish our body.

In this regard, the enzymes, which are chemical compounds, play a major role by digesting and breaking down into smaller parts the food we eat. As consequence of their activity, proteins are reduced to amino acids; complex carbohydrates to simple sugars; and fat to fatty acids and glycerol. In so doing, enzymes act as catalysts of biochemical reactions in all living creatures. Being catalysts means that they are substances able to accelerate the chemical reaction so that the metabolism can work properly and faster in order to sustain life.

When we speak about enzymes it’s important to understand a couple of things: first, that though enzymes are catalysts not all catalysts fall into the category of enzymes, and secondly, that despite many may describe enzymes as special proteins containing energy, their energy is limited and the enzymes work as long as they have that energy. Once they run out of energy their activity as catalysts ends and they become normal proteins.
Though enzymes are not alive and, consequently, do not die, they can, however, become either “inactive” or denatured”. Their inactivity may be caused by “lack of water, an incompatible temperature or incompatible pH” (acid/alkaline level) and when they reach that state their function as catalysts ends preventing them from facilitating the digestive process. By becoming “denatured”, their activity stops. Simply stated, in order to function and to do so at their best, enzymes require two components at their optimal range: pH and temperature.

Nutrients are what the body needs to produce enzymes for a deficiency in nutrients results in deficiency in enzymes, this meaning that not only the body will be deprived by the required amount of nutrients it needs to stay healthy, but also that it won’t be able to properly use the nutrients it is provided with, this increasing your enzymes deficiency to an even greater extent. A good example could be zinc.

Zinc helps to produce both stomach acid and proteases, which are enzymes acting as catalysts for proteins. Being zinc deficient means that the person won’t be able to break down proteins properly, this negatively impacting several organ systems, including the skin, gastrointestinal tract, central nervous system, and immune, skeletal, and reproductive systems.

Furthermore, since zinc deficiency is usually characterized by the intestinal wall not being completely intact, the result will be that the food particles which cannot be digested may penetrate the body ending up where they shouldn’t. As consequence, the body will identify them as invaders, attack them, and, more often than not, cause food allergies. Once a food has been identified as an allergen, every time it is eaten the reaction in the gut will produce inflammation, the latter leading to an unbalance of the beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut.

Food allergies linked to digestive enzymes deficiency are usually responsible for your digestive disorders, this including indigestion, bloating, flatulence, digestive pain, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or yeast infection.

The main categories of digestive enzymes are:

a) AMYLASE, which digest carbohydrates;

b) PROTEASE, which digest proteins; and

c) LIPASE, which digest fat.

Ideally, to get the best enzymes from Nature, we should eat its products, mainly fruits and vegetables, as soon as we harvest them or as soon as possible after having harvested them. The reason for this is that from the moment we remove the produces from their source which keeps them alive – be it a tree or a plant – they start losing their properties. If, to the contrary, we eat them right away without waiting hours, days, weeks or even months from the time we have harvested them, we will get the most of their nutrients and enzymes. This will facilitate and optimize both our digestion and the absorption process. Eating raw food, is consequently, the best way to boast our enzyme intake for cooking destroys enzymes.

Foods such as apples, grapes and mangoes contain the antioxidant enzymes peroxidase and catalase which both help fighting free radicals. Legumes, to the contrary, must be cooked or sprouted in order to be digested and absorbed. Only by cooking or sprouting them, in fact, their antienzyme factor can be eliminated. No need to say that legumes are very beneficial and extremely healthy and should be regularly used on our table since they are not only reach in fibers, which help the digestion process and keep our colon clean, but constitute also an excellent alternative to meat by being a precious source of (vegetable) proteins.

In conclusion, most of the diseases we know are the consequence of malnutrition and/or of enzymes deficiency: among them are some types of cancer and other debilitating diseases. In order to stay healthy we do need, therefore, to understand the fundamental role the enzymes play in our health and make sure through a proper and balanced diet that our body takes them in the right amount and quality it needs so that we can enjoy optimum health for as long as possible.

Holford P. (2004). The New Optimum Nutrition Bible. Enzymes – The keys to life (pp. 154, 155). New York, NY: Random House/Crossing Press
Bohager T. (2006). Enzymes: What The Experts Know. Chapter One: What are Enzymes? (pp. 7-14)Prescott, AZ: One World Press

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