Enzymes can't scream. This is fortunate for us. Millions of them are killed every day when heated to about 118 degrees. The screams filling the kitchen as we steam our broccoli might just make raw foodists out of all of us.
And though they go quietly, we should mourn their passing—they're helpful buggers. They aid digestion and may mitigate the symptoms of food intolerances.
We have two types of enzymes: digestive and systemic. Systemic enzymes regulate the immune system, among other functions. Digestive enzymes are critical in breaking down food into nutrients that the body can absorb. Each digestive enzyme acts on a specific type of food. Proteases break down protein, amylases break down carbohydrates, lipases break down fats and cellulases break down fiber.
Some people don't have enough enzymes to properly digest certain types of food. For example, a person who does not have enough of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, a main ingredient in dairy products, has difficulty digesting foods containing milk.
People become enzyme deficient for a variety of reasons. As people age, their bodies can produce fewer enzymes, explains Dr. Ellen Cutler, a Mill Valley, Calif., physician and chiropractor, as well as the author of MicroMiracles: Discover the Healing Power of Enzymes (Rodale Books, 2005). Stress, diet and medications can also lower enzyme levels. "People are starting to realize that their digestion as a 50- or 60-year-old just isn't as good as it was as a 20- or 30-year old," says Brenda Watson, a naturopathic physician and president of Renew Life Foods. Plus, as people age, they are more likely to take medications that create enzyme deficiencies, Watson says.
Supplementing with enzymes
Because food allergies are an immune system response, taking supplemental enzymes is a controversial practice that has not been proven to help. "The only way to avoid reactions caused by true food allergies is complete restriction," says Dr. John James of the Colorado Asthma and Allergy Center. But many experts agree that enzymes can reduce symptoms of intolerance.
"Taking supplemental enzymes breaks down the undigested food, detoxifies the digestive system and allows it to do what it needs to do," says Cutler, who has been researching and practicing enzyme therapy for more than 25 years.
"This improper digestion contributes to a surprisingly extensive number of ailments," says Cutler, "including fatigue, skin problems, muscle pain, depression and obesity." She says the results of taking digestive enzymes often manifest within two weeks. "Enzymes are definitely the next frontier of healing."
But others believe the power of enzymes is more limited. "Enzymes have been the 'next frontier' of healing for 20 years now in the healing field," says Nancy Appleton, Ph.D., author of Heal Yourself with Natural Foods (Sterling, 2000).
"I've seen it work, but I don't generally recommend it. I don't think it helps as much as other things, like probiotics," says Suzanne Myer, M.S., R.D., C.D., who has been treating clients with food intolerances for 20 years.
"It's a complex issue and more research is definitely needed," Watson says.
Those who take digestive enzymes should consume them with food. "Do not take them more than an hour after eating, though, because they will not be effective," Watson says.
You can't overdose on digestive enzymes. Supplemental digestive enzymes "are pretty benign," Myer says. "They don't build up in your system." Watson says, however, about 1 percent of the population has a sensitivity to the asperigillus fungus, an ingredient in some enzyme supplements. Those people feel mildly ill after taking these products.
"There's a growing consumer base for enzymes as reducers of food intolerances, but the population needs to be educated," Watson says. She suggests placing DSHEA-compliant information about symptoms and the enzymes that could help them where the enzymes are displayed. "It would also be a good idea to display the enzymes near the foods that commonly cause problems."
Shara Rutberg is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 4/p. 28