Understanding Your Food & The Role of Enzymes

Does eating dairy, wheat or tomatoes make you feel worse? If so, you aren’t alone. Today one out of every three people believes they have a food allergy or sensitivity.

The ultimate purpose of eating is to provide each cell in your body with the nutrients it needs. If you can’t digest your food well, your cells don’t work optimally. When working with clients, I am always looking for the lever that will gently push healing into gear. One tool that I have found to be effective is supplemental digestive enzymes.

People of all ages can benefit from supplemental digestive enzymes. They enhance our ability to get nutrients to our cells. As we age, we typically make fewer digestive enzymes. Children with growth, learning, behavior, digestive, or skin issues often benefit. People who have food intolerances or are sensitive to digesting certain foods can often broaden what they eat because they are actually digesting the food properly.

What Are Enzymes?

Enzymes are proteins that are catalysts used to facilitate tiny chemical changes for virtually every single chemical process that occurs in your body. There are thousands of known enzymes and each has a specific job. We use them to think, create energy, adjust hormone levels, and virtually everything else. We cannot use a vitamin, a mineral, a fat, make or break down cells, or control blood sugar without enzymes.

Our body makes two main types of enzymes: metabolic enzymes and digestive enzymes. The metabolic enzymes run all body systems. Digestive enzymes are produced in the pancreas and throughout the digestive system to help us break down our foods into molecules that our cells recognize. These enzymes are manufactured from proteins and need to be continually replenished.

Each enzyme has a specific job and works on a specific type of molecule. The main types of enzymes are lipases for digesting fats, carbohydrases for digesting carbohydrates, and proteases for the digestion of protein.

We can also use enzymes that come from foods and supplements to bolster our own. Some of these sources include fresh, raw foods such as fruits and vegetables, along with cultured and fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kim chee, natural cheeses, and kefir.

Main Sources of Enzymes

Your body:

Digestive Enzymes:

Break down the foods we eat into basic components that our cells can use. These are produced throughout the digestive system. The main categories include:

  • Proteases to break down protein
  • Lipases to break down fats
  • Carbohydrases to break down starches and carbohydrates
  • Cellulases to break down fibers


Metabolic Enzymes:

Used as catalysts for energy, healing, growth, immune function, making neurotransmitters, to reduce or create inflammation, building and breaking down bone and cartilage, and every other function in your body.

Your food:

Enzymes are found in all foods that are fresh.
Enzymes are what ripen bananas or tomatoes sitting on our countertops. Enzymes are also what continue to “compost” those tomatoes and bananas if we don’t eat them fast enough. The culturing of dairy products and fermentation of other foods increases enzyme activity. Think of foods such as yogurt, kefir, naturally made cheeses, coconut kefir, sauerkraut, kim chee, and tempeh.

Enzyme Supplements:
Digestive enzymes can be purchased as supplements.
These products can be general for digestion of fats, carbohydrates and proteins, or can be specialized. For example, some products are specifically for lactose intolerance, breaking down gluten, casein (a milk protein) or carbohydrates. Others may focus on fat digestion, reducing inflammation, breaking down phenols and fibers, or for when you eat beans. If you aren’t exactly sure which you need, there are also broad-spectrum supplements that provide enzymes that do all of this.

Enzyme Deficiencies
Many people have enzyme deficiencies, making them unable to adequately digest specific foods or food groups. Have you ever eaten a bowl of chili or cereal with milk and found yourself left with an uncomfortable amount of gas? It’s probably because you lack the enzymes to digest either beans or dairy products. The most common enzyme deficiency is lactose intolerance affecting about 25% of us. Celiac disease (though technically not an enzyme deficiency) and gluten intolerance make it impossible for us to break down the gluten protein in grains. Gluten is highly resistant to digestion.

Specific enzymes, such as DPP-IV assist in digestion of the gluten molecule. Phenols and salicylates can be problematic for another group of people. Xylanase enzymes break these down. Typically this enzyme deficiency can contribute to neurological symptoms, such as learning and behavior disorders.

Left unchecked, enzyme deficiencies prevent complete digestion of specific compounds in foods and can lead to symptoms of food intolerance. Because enzymes are specific, we need to have a lot of different types to digest specific food components.

Food Sensitivities, Leaky Gut, and Digestive Enzymes
The lining of your small intestines is composed of small finger-like projections called the villi and microvilli. This is where we absorb all of the food we eat into our bloodstream. If you laid this out flat, it would cover a surface the size of a tennis court. This single cell membrane digestive system is replaced every few days. Stress, antibiotics, fast foods, pain medications, and hormones can block repair causing “leaky gut” or “increased intestinal permeability”. When repair is delayed or when the lining is inflamed, the tight junctions between the cells open up a bit, allowing food molecules to pass through. Since your blood stream cannot finish the job of digestion, these food molecules are seen by your immune system as a threat. Eventually your immune system recognizes these specific foods when you eat them and mounts an immune response. We call these food allergies or sensitivities.

Photo Credit to Genova Diagnostics Labs.

Irritation or inflammation at the site of the villi or microvilli can also compromise your body’s ability to release pancreatic enzymes. Cholecystokinin is a hormone that signals your pancreas to release digestive enzymes. If your villi or microvilli are inflamed or blunted from food sensitivities, cholecystokinin doesn’t send the message.

Food Allergies, Sensitivities, and Intolerances

Food Allergies: True food allergies affect about 1-2% of us. Symptoms appear quickly triggering IgE antibodies that stimulate the release of cytokines and histamines. This results in closing of the throat, fatigue, tearing, hives, itching, respiratory distress, watery or runny nose, skin rashes, itchy eyes and ear, and sometimes severe reactions of asthma and anaphylactic shock. The most common foods are eggs, cow milk, nuts, shellfish, soy, wheat, peanuts, and white fi sh. If you are allergic to these foods, it’s best to avoid them completely.

Food Sensitivities: Food sensitivity reactions are more common, affecting about 10-20% of us. These reactions are delayed and can take several hours to several days to appear. This makes it difficult to track them down. It’s estimated that 95% of food reactions are the delayed type. These correspond with higher levels of IgG, IgA, and IgM antibodies to specific foods. The symptoms are varied and correspond with symptoms of leaky gut syndrome. 80% of food sensitivity reactions are to wheat, dairy, eggs, beef, citrus, corn, pork, or mold on foods.

Lactose Intolerance: It’s estimated that about 25% of Americans, and 75% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. It’s most prevalent in people of Asian, African or Mediterranean descent. In the US, virtually all people of Asian ancestry and 80% of African-Americans are lactose intolerant. Interestingly, most people can tolerate small amounts of dairy products. Even more can tolerate lactose-free milk or eat dairy products when they take lactase enzyme supplements.

Gluten Intolerance/Celiac Disease: Gluten is a protein found in certain grains: wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and triticale. Gluten is particularly resistant to digestion and can play havoc with our digestive lining. About 1% of us have celiac disease, which is triggered by having the right genetics, plus a leaky gut, and eating gluten-containing grains. It is estimated that 15% of us have gluten intolerance; this number is much higher for people with autism, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and auto-immune diseases.

People with celiac and gluten intolerance need to avoid ALL gluten. This is difficult to do. Taking digestive enzymes with meals can help when gluten is present in your food. The specific enzyme that helps to break down the gluten protein is called DPP-IV.

Disaccharide Intolerance: Some people lack the ability to break apart two molecule sugars, such as lactose, maltose, and sucrose. The specific carbohydrate diet, which benefits many people with autism, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, intestinal infections, Candida, or Crohn’s disease, is based upon limiting disaccharide molecules in the diet. Taking lactase, maltase, and sucrase enzymes with meals helps broaden what many people can eat.

Phenol Intolerance: Benjamin Feingold, MD first recognized that phenols, including salicylates, could scramble the thought processes of some children and adults with autism, ADD, ADHD, and other learning and behavior disorders. For those people, avoiding all man-made chemicals in household cleaners, art supplies, food colorings, fragrances, MSG, and foods is essential. Some people are so sensitive that they also need to limit many otherwise healthful fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and herbs. Some enzyme products contain Xylanase, an enzyme that breaks down phenols and salicylates.

Digestive Enzyme Supplements

The use of supplemental digestive enzymes can help support your body so that you have fewer sensitivity reactions. Taking a broad-spectrum digestive enzyme product is a simple way to more fully digest the food you eat so that it can be delivered to your cells in a form that they can use. Enzymes also help reduce leaky gut and food sensitivities because there is less irritation in the small intestine.

Many people feel a difference the first time enzymes are taken with food. You may need two capsules with a large meal, or with meals containing foods that you are sensitive to. Take them with you if you are going to a party or eating out. Even if you are careful, gluten, dairy and other food components can easily show up in a meal.

Look for enzyme products that have a broad array of enzymes. They should be specific about which enzymes are contained in the formula and also list the activity units. Activity units give you the strength of the specific enzyme. The abbreviations for the activity units are specific to the type of enzyme.

For example, protease enzymes are listed as HUT, amylase enzymes are DU, and lactase as ALU. Enzymes derived from animal pancreas use activity units as USP. With either system, the higher the unit numbers the greater the activity. Though this is a key component, it is important to realize that superior enzyme products are blended like fine wines; and each company blends a bit differently. Using a broad spectrum product will typically give you the best results with food intolerances and food sensitivities.

About the Author:
Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D., C.C.N., holds a doctorate in clinical nutrition and is a board-certified clinical nutritionist. Dr. Lipski has worked in the field of holistic and complementary medicine for over twenty-five years and is the author of Digestive wellness and Leaky Gut Syndrome. Dr. Lipski is currently in private practice in Asheville, North Carolina. Visit her website: http://www.lizlipski.com/
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