Today we’re going to have a look at enzymes in general, digestive enzymes and the role hydrochloric acid and bile play in the digestive process. As nutritional consultants, we believe that you are not simply what you eat, but what you absorb. You could be ingesting the best, most nutritious foods, but if it’s not properly being metabolized, it’s of no use to you. Let’s explore!
Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions in living organisms. In fact, they are required for every single chemical action that takes place in your body. All of your tissues, muscles, bones, organs, and cells are run by enzymes.
Your digestive system, immune system, bloodstream, liver, kidneys, spleen, and pancreas, as well as your ability to see, think, feel, and breathe, all depend on enzymes. All of the minerals and vitamins you eat, and all of the hormones your body produces, need enzymes in order to work properly. In fact, every single metabolic function in your body is governed by enzymes. Your stamina, your energy level, your ability to utilize vitamins and minerals — all governed by enzymes.
Source of Enzymes
But where do enzymes come from? As it happens, they are produced internally in every cell in your body, but most notably in the pancreas and the other endocrine glands. They are also present in all of the raw foods that we eat. At birth, we are endowed with a certain potential for manufacturing enzymes in our bodies, an enzyme “reserve,” if you will. Nature intended that we continually replenish that reserve through proper nutrition and eating habits. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen. Let’s take a look at why.
Most people believe that when you eat a meal it drops into a pool of stomach acid, where it is broken down. Then, that broken down food goes into the small intestine to have nutrients taken out. Finally, it passes through the colon to be eliminated from the body. In simple terms, this is how it happens. But many of us miss some important steps.
What nature intended is for you to eat enzyme rich foods and that you chew your food properly. What is properly? You might remember your mother suggesting that you chew your food 30 times before swallowing. There was merit to that! When you slow down and chew what’s in your mouth, the food enters the stomach laced with digestive enzymes. These enzymes would then “predigest” your food, actually breaking it down as much as 75% before moving it to the next part of digestion.
After this period of “pre-digestion,” hydrochloric acid is introduced. The acid inactivates all of the food-based enzymes but begins its own function of breaking down what is left of the meal. Eventually, this nutrient-rich food concentrate moves on into the small intestine. Once this concentrate enters the small intestine, the acid is neutralized and the pancreas reintroduces digestive enzymes to the process. As digestion is completed, nutrients are passed through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream.
This is what nature intended. Unfortunately, many of us don’t live our lives as nature intended!
Processed and Overcooked Foods
Processing and cooking destroy enzymes in food. If you think about it, Man is the only animal that cooks his food. In fact, any sustained heat of approximately 118-129 degrees F destroys virtually all enzymes. This means that, for most of us, the food entering our stomach is severely enzyme deficient. Although there are enzymes present from our saliva, the amount transferred to our food is minute since we only chew our food about 25% as much as is required. The result is that most of our meals enter our stomachs devoid of much-needed enzymes. It’s worth noting that the body does try to compensate. Amylase levels in the saliva of people eating the typical western cooked/processed diet are as much as 40 times higher than the levels found in people eating a more natural diet. (The enzyme amylase is used by the body for digesting carbohydrates.)
Since there are little to no enzymes in the food, it sits in the stomach for an hour, like a heavy lump, with very little pre-digestion taking place. At that point, stomach acid is introduced at high levels to compensate for the lack of pre-digestion (a major factor in the onset of acid reflux disease). But high levels of stomach acid cannot compensate for the lack of pre-digestion. So even after the stomach acid has done its work, the typical cooked/processed meal enters the small intestine largely undigested.
Stress on the Body
At this point, the pancreas and the other organs of the endocrine system are put under tremendous stress since they have to draw reserves from the entire body in order to produce enormous amounts of the proper enzymes. The less digestion that takes place before food reaches the small intestine, the greater the stress placed on the endocrine system. Recent studies have shown that virtually 100% of people on the typical “western” diet have an enlarged pancreas by the time they reach age 40. Is it any wonder that the incidence of diabetes is increasing at such a rapid rate? There is also research showing that enzyme deficient diets contribute to a pathological enlargement of the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is the gland that regulates all of the other glands in the body.
The bottom line is that regular supplementation with digestive enzymes takes stress off of the pancreas (and the entire body) by providing the body with added enzymes required for proper digestion. In other words, if you are not incorporating a good percentage of raw food in your diet and/or you are not taking the time to chew your food, digestive enzyme supplements may just be one of the best insurance policies you can give your body so you can enjoy a long and healthy life.
Let’s look at digestive enzymes in more detail – and give you guidelines on how to choose the optimum formulation. You have to choose a formula designed for your current lifestyle and needs.
Benefits from using supplemental digestive enzymes can include:
- A significant reduction in indigestion and heartburn problems resulting from too much acid in the stomach.
- Relief from gas and bloating.
- Improved digestion of dairy products.
- Diminished food allergies due to more complete protein digestion.
- An increase in energy levels.
- Relief from hiatal hernias.
- Relief from ulcers
Choosing Your Digestive Enzymes
There are probably several hundred digestive enzyme formulas on the market. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them aren’t even worth the cost of the bottles in which they are packaged. We hope to provide you with some easy tools that will help you to determine which formulation is best for you. These tools are center around your ability to identify:
- Watered down formulas
- Actual enzyme activity
- Why protease levels matter
- The importance of pH ranges in designing a formula
- Whether or not your formula is designed for your lifestyle
- About enteric coating
- How to use an enzyme formula
- The importance of HCL — and where it belongs
- Dual action formulas VS dedicated formulas
Watered down formulas
All too often, nutritional formulas are designed by people who get their “expertise” from books rather than case studies. This makes for formulas that may look good on paper but may not make sense in the real world. An example of this would be a formulation that contains 30 ingredients stuffed into a 500 mg capsule. On paper, it looks great to have all of these healthy ingredients in their formula. But the reality is that if all the ingredients are equal in the formula, there would be very little of each ingredient present (only 16.7/1000mg). In fact, the reality is usually even worse, with the first few ingredients getting more and the rest getting as little as 4, or even 2, thousandths of a gram. Incidentally, a full gram is only1/28 of an ounce. When you get down to 2, 4, or even 16.7 thousandths of a gram, you’re talking pixie dust levels of a given ingredient.
So what does this have to do with digestive enzymes? Well, it’s hard enough to stuff all of the enzyme activity you need into a 500 mg capsule, even when packing it full to the brim with the highest quality enzymes. And yet, so many enzyme formulas, stuff their enzyme capsules with more herbs and fillers than actual enzymes.
Actual enzyme activity
Be suspicious of any enzyme formula that lists the mg of enzymes present as opposed to the activity level of each enzyme in the formula. Activity level is what you’re after. Two batches of the same enzyme of equal weight can have highly different activity levels. What’s important to note when it comes to enzymes is that weight measurements are not always useful and can be downright misleading as there is no direct relationship between weight and units of activity. In fact, an enzyme can still have a weight even if it has been destroyed and has zero activity. When comparing enzymes, you need to compare activity levels.
Experience shows that vegetarian based enzymes are a better choice than animal-based enzymes as they tend to have higher activity levels.
The internationally recognized and accepted standard for measurement is by Food Chemical Codex (FCC) Units. This is usually expressed in different activity units for each type of enzyme, as in:
- Protease – HUTs (Hemoglobin units, tyrosine basis)
- Amylase – SKB (named after the creators of the test Sandstedt, Kneen, and Blish ) or DU (used in the brewing industry)
- Lipase – LU
Why protease matters
Many supplement companies will produce comparison tables so you can see that brand A has more protease than brand B or C. This is not necessarily useless, but it has a marginal impact. It also ignores a number of factors:
- First of all, unless you are on a “meat lover’s diet”, you need far less protease than most of these formulas contain.
- On the other hand, you need more amylase and more lactase if you want a formula designed for the way most people eat.
- And high HUT numbers for protease, provide an incomplete picture. Unless the formula also contains a significant amount of acid stable protease, you will find that your supplement just doesn’t work as well as expected.
So what numbers should you look for?
- Protease: A minimum of 33,000 HUT should be adequate for most meals. (Remember, you can always take a second or third capsule for meals that require it.)
- Acid stable protease: 1,000 SAPU would be great. Most formulas have none at all.
- Lipase: 5,000 LU is adequate
- Amylase: Look for 12,000 SKB
- Lactase: 1,500 LACU is the minimum with optimal levels around 2,000 – 2,500
- Look for a variety of other enzymes such as Malt diastase, Invertase, Glucoamylase, Cellulase, and Hemicellulase
- You may also want to find a formulation with alpha-galactosidase to help control gas and bloating.
Whether or not your formula is designed for your lifestyle
This ties into what we’ve just talked about. Extremely high protease numbers do not reflect the average “western” diet – a diet high in carbohydrates, fats, and dairy products. Even people who try to avoid these items they find a common challenge around avoiding them completely. For example, if you eat out at restaurants, you will most likely find dairy in soups, sauces, and pasta. Formulas need to be designed for the way you eat, not for “ideal” diets.
pH ranges in which a formula works
Most people believe that when you eat a meal it drops into a pool of stomach acid, where it’s broken down, then goes into the small intestine to have nutrients taken out, and then into the colon to be passed out of the body. Unfortunately, most of us don’t live our lives as nature intended! Processing and cooking destroy enzymes in food. This means that the food entering our stomachs is severely enzyme deficient.
At first, the food sits in our stomach for about an hour, like a heavy lump, with very little pre-digestion taking place. Even after the stomach acid has done its work, the meal enters the small intestine largely undigested. Over time, our body becomes accustomed to this habit and ends up increasing the amount of stomach acid in an attempt to compensate for the lack of predigestion. The consequences are as follows:
- Acid reflux, which is caused by the high levels of acid introduced too early in the digestion process and splashing up into the esophagus. Oftentimes, the mere act of using digestive enzymes can eliminate acid reflux. **Note while the use of prescription and over the counter acid reflux drugs may help alleviate the symptoms of acid reflux, they significantly aggravate the following three problems.
- Incomplete digestion. High levels of stomach acid cannot adequately overcome the lack of predigestion. That means that food is only partially digested, which means that many proteins that are not sufficiently broken down enter the bloodstream causing allergic and autoimmune problems.
- Chronic indigestion. Acid reflux drugs, which reduce the amount of stomach acid makes this problem even worse. Eventually, you alter the ability of your stomach to produce sufficient stomach acid, which means incomplete digestion. A common condition in the elderly.
- Malnutrition. Incomplete digestion means that you don’t get the nutrient value from your meal.
Since it is known that digestive enzymes don’t mix with stomach acid, some formulations will be “enteric coated”. This is actually counterproductive — the result of book learned theory. If the enzymes are enteric coated, they won’t begin working until they reach the intestinal tract. This is a good thing for proteolytic enzymes, but not digestive enzymes. The primary role of digestive enzymes is to work in predigestion. If the enzymes are enteric coated, that is an impossibility.
How to use an enzyme formula
So how many enzymes should you take? Well, that depends on the strength of your formula and the size of your meal. If one capsule works for most of your meals, you may find you need to take 2 when you overindulge.
And when do you take your enzymes? I’ve seen instructions that recommend taking enzymes after you eat your meal, but that makes no sense. The moment processed or cooked food enters the stomach, your body recognizes that it has no enzymes and starts pumping in stomach acid. If you have your enzymes after eating your meal, they will be rendered inactive by the stomach acid being pumped in and provide much less benefit — at least until they are reactivated by the alkaline environment of the intestinal tract. On the other hand, if you take them too soon, they will clear the stomach and be absorbed into your bloodstream before they have a chance to help digest your food. The simple answer is to take them just before you start eating. This sends a signal to your body that enzymes are present and begins to train your body to hold back on the stomach acid for the 40-60 minutes that nature intended.
What if you forget to take them? They can still be of use after you eat depending on the size of the meal and how much protein, fat or starch it has. In fact, you may find that you can still get great benefit taking enzymes 3-4 hours after eating a large heavy meat, starch, and fat meal — you know, the kind that sits in your stomach for days!
Some enzyme formulas like to include HCL (stomach acid) in the form of Betaine Hydrochloride to aid in digestion. But for the reasons that we’ve just talked about, this does not make sense. Taking Betaine HCL with your enzyme supplement (or as part of it) creates an acid environment too soon in the digestive process. The bottom line is that for those who need supplemental HCL (a significant percentage of the elderly), should be taking it as a separate supplement 40-60 minutes after you finish eating.
Dual action formulas
It is possible to use digestive enzymes as systemic proteolytic enzymes. These are enzymes designed to clean out the bloodstream and body, and which are taken without food so they can go directly into the bloodstream. In fact, enzymes this way are convenient and do work. The problem is that you have to compromise your formula to do this. A capsule can only hold so much. If you increase the protease to accommodate the proteolytic functions, you have to back off from the other digestive enzymes. However, a full spectrum digestive enzyme formula must cut back on the proteases, or at least the ability of the proteases to work in a wide range of pHs. In the end, you get much more effective formulas if you split them in two and purchase your digestive enzymes as pure digestive enzymes and your proteolytics as a pure proteolytic formula.
It is possible to use good quality digestive enzymes and receive a significant amount of benefit. But it is far more beneficial to use formulas that are optimized for each particular function. With that in mind, here are the profound benefits of supplementing with a dedicated proteolytic formula. These benefits include:
- Reduced inflammation: Inflammation is a natural response of the body to injury. However, excessive inflammation retards the healing process. Proteolytic enzymes reduce inflammation by neutralizing the bio-chemicals of inflammation (bradykinins and pro-inflammatory eicosanoids) to levels where the synthesis, repair and regeneration of injured tissues can take place. Reducing inflammation can have an immediate impact on improved heart health, cancer prevention and recovery, and Alzheimer’s prevention. It also helps speed up recovery from sprains, strains, fractures, bruises, contusions, surgery — and arthritis.
- Cleansing the blood of debris: Proteolytic enzymes are the primary tools the body uses to “digest” organic debris in the circulatory and lymph systems. Supplementing merely improves the effectiveness of the process.
- Dissolving fibrin in the blood, reducing the risk of clots: Certain specialized proteases such as nattokinase are extremely effective at improving the “quality” of blood cells, optimizing the ability of blood to flow through the circulatory system, and reducing the risk of clots. This is extremely important in reducing the risk of stroke.
- Maximized immune system: The primary vehicle the immune system uses for destroying invaders is enzymes. Macrophages, for example, literally digest invaders with proteolytic enzymes. Supplementation significantly improves the ability of your immune system to do its job.
- The killing of bacteria, viruses, molds, and fungi: Bacteria, viruses, molds, and fungi are protein/amino acid based. Proteolytic enzymes taken between meals literally go into the bloodstream and digest these invaders.
- Elimination of autoimmune diseases: Large undigested proteins make their way into the bloodstream and form CICs (Circulating Immune Complexes), which trigger allergies and autoimmune diseases. Supplemental proteolytic enzymes clean CICs out of the body, thereby reducing allergies and autoimmune conditions. In addition, this helps with sinusitis and asthma.
- Dissolving of scar tissue: Scar tissue is made of protein. Proteolytic enzymes can effectively “digest” scar tissue, particularly in the circulatory system.
- And finally, a properly designed supplemental proteolytic enzyme formula can help. reduce the symptoms of MS, clean out the lungs, and aid in detoxing.
Which brings us to the final question: what constitutes a properly designed supplemental proteolytic enzyme formula?
- First, it needs a lot of proteases. You want at least 200,000 HUT. This is far more than you will ever find in a digestive formula. 300,000 HUT is even better. (Note: fungal (vegetarian based) protease is merely rendered inactive by stomach acid, not destroyed. As soon as it passes into the alkaline environment of the intestinal tract it reactivates — and if not needed for digesting food, makes its way into the bloodstream. In other words, for use in a proteolytic enzyme formula, it does not need to be protected from stomach acid.)
- In addition, even though fungal protease does indeed reactivate in the intestinal tract, the formula will be much more effective if it includes a variety of proteases that work optimally in a variety of pH ranges. Some of these proteases would include papain, bromelain, and fungal pancreatin.
- A very special proteolytic enzyme called nattokinase has been discovered that has displayed a remarkable ability to optimally balance the clotting ability of blood. Its ability to control clotting rivals that of pharmaceutical drugs such as warfarin, but without any of the side effects or downsides — making it of value to everyone, not just heart disease patients. Obviously, if you are already using blood thinners, you will need to work with your doctor if you decide to incorporate proteolytic enzymes in your health program. (Unfortunately, most doctors will opt to play it safe and choose to keep you on the pharmaceuticals.)
- One of the “hot” proteolytic enzymes in alternative health right now is serrapeptase. It has remarkable anti-inflammatory and counters swelling and fluid retention activity in a number of tissues. And in addition to reducing inflammation, serrapeptase has a profound ability to reduce pain, due to its ability to block the release of pain-inducing amines from inflamed tissues. And finally, it helps clear mucus from the lungs by reducing neutrophil numbers and altering the viscoelasticity of sputum in patients with chronic airway diseases. These are all major benefits, however, serrapeptase has several problems:
- Its quality tends to be inconsistent
- It can cause intestinal distress
- It is very sensitive to stomach acid, which means it has to be enteric coated.
So is there an alternative to serrapeptase? Yes, it’s called Seaprose-S.
- It’s manufactured in Japan and is of consistently high quality
- It causes virtually no intestinal distress
- It is not affected by stomach acid so it does not require enteric coating
- Studies have shown that it is more effective than serrapeptase — 85% vs 65%.
In conclusion, regular use of proteolytic enzymes can be an invaluable addition to your daily health program.
There are definitely ways to increase your digestion without supplementation. However, the use of digestive enzymes could be the insurance you need that you are absorbing the nutrients you are ingesting. If supplements aren’t your thing or if you’d rather only use them when you are eating large meals, come back to the simple practices of eating whole foods, increasing your intake of raw foods to about 75% of your diet and to chewing your food. These three steps will greatly improve your digestion and therefore, your health.
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