What are they?

Enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts to enable or activate every kind of metabolic process in the body; they are the sparks that start the essential chemical reactions our bodies need to live.

Why are they important?

Enzymes are necessary for digesting food, for stimulating the brain, for providing cellular energy, and for repairing all tissues, organs, and cells. There is scarcely any physiological process in the human body that does not require enzymes. Without enzymes, we would simply cease to exist.

What do they do?

Enzymes speed up the rate of chemical reactions. This implies that reactions will happen with or without enzymes – theoretically true, but not practically speaking. Millions of reactions need to be happening every second. Without enzymes, metabolic function would become so instantly bogged down that life processes would stop, and the human organism would die. (As would most other organisms.)

How do they work?

An enzyme acts upon the substrate (the substance acted upon) by changing its shape to make a chemical reaction occur much more readily. The way, for example, that a molecule of lactose is acted upon by the enzyme lactase is a lock-and-key mechanism whereby one molecule fits perfectly into the other, thus easily locking them together. This causes a series of biochemical reactions enabling milk to be digested and assimilated.

Most of us are familiar with the difficulty encountered by people lacking the enzyme lactase. They would say, “I’m lactose intolerant.” The process of digesting dairy without this critical enzyme becomes slow and difficult. It can cause discomfort, gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, cramps, often sinusitis, and sometimes even asthma. Yet for some lactose-intolerant individuals, eating raw dairy foods is fine, because the naturally–occurring lactase in the milk has not been destroyed by pasteurization. Other dairy-intolerant people have no problem eating yogurt or kefir, because these foods contain active, live bacterial cultures that provide the enzymes necessary for digestion. (Among their many other functions, probiotic bacteria produce enzymes.) Here are some examples of dairy products that culture naturally if unpasteurized because lactase enzymes and probiotic bacteria remain in the milk: cultured buttermilk, clotted cream, soured milk, churned butter, cultured sour cream, and yogurt (made just by leaving a bowl of raw milk out on a warm countertop). These and many other cultured foods were an everyday part of life before the advent of pasteurization, and still are in many – perhaps most – parts of the world outside the US.

What happens when there is a loss or deficiency of enzymes?

Enzymes facilitate all bodily functions. Failure or inability to produce certain enzymes can be a life-threatening situation. Some of the conditions caused by enzyme-deficiency diseases include stunted growth, arthritis, weakness and shaking, mental retardation, heart problems, joint disease, and liver failure. Even for a healthy person, the abundance or scarcity of available enzymes makes a great difference to quality of life, energy level, immune function, and the overall aging process. Some researchers theorize that length of the lifespan itself is the direct result of how abundant and well-utilized the enzyme supply is, and that when we run out, we die.

Types of enzymes

There are three types of enzymes needed to sustain life: two produced in the body; the third, food enzymes, provided by the foods we eat. Metabolic enzymes are necessary for energy production in the cells, providing for sensate function, motor abilities, and thought processes. Digestive enzymes produced in the body enable food to be broken down into its constituent elements. Food enzymes complement digestive enzymes. Both are important to digestion and assimilation – moving nutrients into the bloodstream to supply food to the cells, and passing on unusable parts of the food and toxic contaminants to be removed as waste.

We start out in life with an ample complement of enzymes at birth. Then what happens?

Food enzymes are missing when the food that normally provides them has been processed, heat-treated, or contaminated with preservatives, other additives, or pesticides. When insufficient enzymes are present in foods, all the work must be done by digestive enzymes, resulting in poor or incomplete digestion and gradually using up the lifetime complement of digestive and metabolic enzymes, which are “stolen” from elsewhere in the body. Yet they are also needed in organs and tissues for building, repair, and healing. Among their many functions, enzymes are needed to provide energy to the cells; to reduce inflammation; to break down yeast, bacteria, and viruses; to detoxify the body and cleanse the blood; and to remove harmful plaque and fibrin associated with heart disease. Preventing inflammation is crucial, as it is a significant factor in the development of cancer and all degenerative diseases, autoimmune syndromes, allergies, aging, adrenal exhaustion, endocrine dysfunction, and immune depletion.

What to do about it

1. Avoid Processed Food

Maintaining or adding to our supply of available enzymes is essential to promoting health and well-being. So the first step, as much as possible, is to avoid processed food. This includes chewing gum, which usually contains chemical additives. Chewing gum also tricks your body into expecting food, so your organs gear up by secreting enzymes and acids, which are then wasted when no meal is forthcoming. Most packaged foods and all milled flour and sugar as well as canned, microwaved, convenience, and fast foods are processed. They have been treated or chemically altered in a way that destroys enzymes. Preservatives contain enzyme inhibitors, as do many prescription drugs, thus increasing the damage. So the more our diet consists of fresh, whole foods the way they are found in nature, the better. Foods prepared from scratch are vastly superior to convenience foods, even if cooked – though cooking above 118 degrees Farenheit does kill enzymes as well.

2. To cook or not to cook? Raw vs Cooked

We humans have a long history of heating our food. Many traditional practices suggest that people in colder climates, as well as certain constitutional types (Vata, in the Ayurvedic system) need to eat warm foods. According to Chinese medicine, cooked foods contain more chi because life force is added to the food by those who participate in its preparation. Not least of all, warm foods are comforting in the winter.

So how to retain the living enzymes present in raw food? Warm food can be combined with raw foods to provide enzymes. If a cooked entrée is the main course, a raw salad and a lightly steamed vegetable – still retaining some of the enzymes – could be eaten at the same meal. A variety of snack foods are typically eaten raw: most fruits as well as many vegetables – fresh carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, most herbs, tomatoes, zucchini, celery, cabbbage, radishes, peppers, jicama, mushrooms (not a true vegetable, but nutrient-rich and enjoyed raw). Broccoli contains more of its valuable sulfur compounds before being cooked. Most produce, if eaten raw, retains many nutrients, as well as enzymes, that would be lost in cooking.

Cooking does provide inherent benefits in certain foods. Oxalic acid content in spinach, chard, and beet greens high enough to prevent calcium absorption is broken down by cooking. Cooking concentrates beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor) in carrots. Cooked tomatoes have higher levels of lycopene than raw. Grains and legumes must be cooked to be digested, and should be soaked first for at least 2 to 12 hours as well. Nevertheless, all fruits and a great many vegetables are delicious and nutritious when eaten raw, and should be a significant part of any health-promoting diet. Eating raw produce at room temperature rather than straight from the fridge makes it more appetizing and easier to digest during the cold months. Chew slowly and thoroughly, to enhance digestion, savor the food, and don’t overeat, which puts a strain on enzyme production.

3. Enzyme Superfoods

Some foods are so rich in enzymes that they not only provide for their own digestion, but facilitate digestion in general and fortify the body’s overall enzyme needs. Papaya, pineapple, avocados, bee pollen, and brewer’s nutritional yeast are teeming with enzymes. Sprouts are one of the very richest sources of enzymes. So are naturally fermented foods containing live cultures: kefir, sauerkraut, kim chee, unfiltered apple cider vinegar, crème fraiche, kombucha, and sprouted grasses, grains, and beans. Soaking and sprouting raw seeds, nuts, and grains makes them more bioavailable by unlocking enzymes and many nutrients. Their survival as a species is ensured by a thick coating or hull that prevents their release of nutrients until the proper conditions have been met. It is their natural defense to protect their “young” – the sproutlings – even employing toxins and anti-nutrients – until germination is possible. For this reason, a diet high in grains that have not been fermented or sprouted can lead to mineral difficiencies.

4. Other Raw Foods

Raw cheeses and butters are becoming more plentiful in everyday stores like Trader Joe’s, as well as in specialty shops. Steak tartare, carpaccio, sashimi, oysters, fermented fish, cold-smoked lox and gravlax, and ceviche are examples of popular meat and fish dishes prepared and served raw. Raw eggs can be added to salad dressings and eggnogs, or blended into smoothies, enriching nutritional value as well as taste.

5. Safety?

Fear of eating raw foods potentially contaminated with dangerous bacteria or parasites is a very real concern. But the problem is in the way the crop or livestock is grown and processed. In a corporate culture that places profit above all else, most of the food supply is grown in concentrated, crowded, unsanitary conditions. Legislating stricter rules for safety that ignore these conditions – that attempt to protect consumers only at the user end –  relies on blanket approaches like pasteurization, irradiation, and genetic modification. In the name of “safety,” such approaches render the food lifeless and useless – unable to provide for robustness and a strong immune response. So public health is compromised in spite of (and because of) Draconian safety measures.

6. Natural Solutions to Safety Concerns

Organic, humane farming conditions normally ensure that food is safe and healthful. Raw foods prepared through fermentation, culturing, or maceration provide protection against harmful bacteria by supplying protective bacteria or acids like lime juice and vinegar, that kill microbes. If, in addition, the individual consumer possesses an adequate supply of gastric juices and stomach acids, pathogens will not survive the digestive process. This is certainly true of cats and dogs, who eat out of garbage cans without ill effects, and infants and toddlers, who crawl around on the floor and put everything they touch in their mouths. Compared to adults, babies produce prodigious amounts of stomach acid. As we age, our ability to secrete stomach acid is reduced, so food is incompletely digested, and we become vulnerable to infection from the microbes in our food. This problem is compounded by taking antacids. Taking a supplement of hydrochloric acid (HCL, usually with the enzyme betaine) at mealtimes, or simply drinking vinegar water before eating, improves safety, digestion, and nutrient absorption. Microbes have always been present everywhere and in everything, even if food is washed thoroughly so that most germs have been rinsed away. By its very living nature, food cannot be sterile without being dead. The critical factor is the ‘terrain’ – our inner landscape and immune strength.

Enzymes can be taken as a supplement, available at health food stores. People with chronic illness or cancer may be advised by their doctor to take therapeutic megadoses of enzymes. If you decide to take enzyme supplements, note that doing so with meals will enhance thorough digestion. Supplementing on an empty stomach, between meals, will help to recover health. This would be a way to optimize organic function, detoxify, clean up dead cells, and slow down or reverse the aging process. And of course, you can do both.

A high-quality soil-based probiotic supplement will enrich enzyme levels, as it supplies the necessary intestinal flora to maintain health, and also creates enzymes in the process. Finally, a wonderful habit to develop would be taking a spoonful of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar in a glass of water before each meal. Bragg’s is a good brand, and it’s organic. A dense mix of enzymes, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and many other nutrients is contained in the sediment at the bottom (called “the Mother” because it’s such a potent foundational matrix). Swish the bottle gently before pouring to distribute some of the Mother into your spoonful, and it will help you better digest your food and clean up detritus inside (left behind from previous incompletely digested meals or from the stresses of life). If taken daily, ACV will improve digestion, cure most cases of acid reflux, bring mental clarity, and relieve arthritis, aches, and pains.

In Summary

Avoid processed foods, balance cooked with raw, and you will achieve an improved ratio of enzyme-enriching to enzyme-depleting foods. Include potent enzyme “superfoods”  in your diet, and the ratio improves even more. Finally, add enzyme and probiotic supplements and vinegar water. Taking these steps will lead to greater vitality, longevity, and well being.

For further reading, see The Healing Power of Enzymes by Fuller, or Enzymes – the Fountain of Life by Lopez, Williams, Miehlke.