Susan's Blog

Breaking Down the Food We Eat: Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes (along with HCl and bile) make the digestion of the food we eat possible.   While most of our digestive enzymes are made in the pancreas, enzymes are made throughout the digestive system.  There’s even one made in the mouth!  (It’s called amylase, and is in our saliva).

The three main digestive enzymes are:

  • Lipases >> Break down fat
  • Proteases >> Break down proteins
  • Amylases >> Break down carbohydrates

What happens if someone is low on digestive enzymes?

Eating foods devoid of enzymes can cause us to become depleted in the enzymes that we need to digest our food.  When we are young, our bodies make lots of enzymes, but as we age our internally made enzymes become depleted.  Unless we do something to stop this depletion, our digestion suffers, and this can lead to nutreint deficiencies and even dementia. (1) (2)

What Foods Contain Enzymes?

Fruits and vegetables have very high enzyme activity (3), (4) (5), especially when they are fresh, so home-grown or locally bought is best.  If you can’t get homegrown or local produce, the next best thing is to purchase the freshest-looking produce you can find at the store.  (FYI, if there isn’t any fresh-looking produce to be found (like it’s all wilted), then frozen is next best, and canned is better than no fruits or vegetables at all.)

Fermented foods are especially high in enzymes (6).  Easy-to-find fermented foods include sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kvass and kombucha, but just about any vegetable can be fermented.  Please note that there is a BIG difference between regular (processed in a vinegar solution) sauerkraut, pickles and other products and fermented sauerkraut and pickles because the fermented ones contain enzymes and many other beneficial properties that the vinegar ones do not.

Cultured products such as yogurt and kefir are also a great source of enzymes (7) and they can be made from cow, goat, or coconut milk, and kefir can even be made from water!

Raw animal products such as honey (8), raw milk (purchase from a certified raw milk dairy) and raw milk cheeses and butter (9) are high in enzymes to help you digest your food.

Foods that are cooked, packaged, or processed don’t contain enzymes.  While our bodies do produce enzymes in order to break down the cooked, packaged, or processed foods, it’s a big drain on our bodies, and it’s one of the reasons that many people aren’t digesting their food well.

What can we do to add digestive enzymes to our diet?

Heating liquids higher than 118 degrees Fahrenheit or dry foods higher than 150 degrees Fahrenheit destroys the enzymes in that food (10).  That’s why it’s best to eat meals that contain both cooked and raw foods.

I’m well known for eating a huge salad with greens, garlic, onions, arugula, radish, and anything else I can get my hands on before a meal.  While I prepare that salad, I’m also sipping on homemade kombucha, often with a second ferment with ginger—yum!  The kombucha not only contains lots of enzymes, but it’s tart enough to stimulate the pancreas to secrete digestive enzymes in preparation for the coming meal.

Eating just ¼ cup of any fermented food, such as fermented sauerkraut or pickles with a meal adds lots of enzymes and even enhances the enzyme activity of other foods that you are eating.  The same goes for garlic and sea veggies such as nori and kombu.

Herbs and spices promote enzyme activity in the foods they are eaten with.  The most notable are ginger, curcumin, coriander, onion, garlic, fennel, cumin, hot peppers, black pepper, and mint.

Also, properly soaking nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains (even if they are heated or cooked afterward) helps to break down the phytic acid in those foods, making them more digestible and sparing the phytase-digesting enzymes that your body would otherwise have to produce.  Phytic acid binds to minerals and makes them unavailable due to its chelating property. It has been reported that phytic acid inhibits the absorption of iron, zinc calcium, magnesium and manganese (11, 12), and that milling, soaking, sprouting or fermenting of the food reduces the phytic acid content and increases the bioavailability of minerals (13).

Try to include one or more of the following with every meal:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables (pineapple, kiwi, papaya, avocado, banana, mango, and ginger are especially high in enzymes)
  • Sprouted foods (broccoli, cress, mustard, radish, onion, etc.)
  • Microgreens (chard, beet, lettuce, broccoli, cilantro, parsley, basil, fennel, etc.)
  • Raw foods (sushi, sashimi, raw milk and raw milk products like butter and cheese, raw honey)
  • Cultured products (yogurt, kefir, etc. from cow, goat, or coconut milk)
  • Fermented foods (kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, pickles, miso, etc.)
  • Herbs and spices (ginger, curcumin, coriander, onion, garlic, fennel, cumin, hot peppers, black pepper, mint are especially beneficial)

Do I Need an Enzyme Supplement?  

Many people have enzyme deficiencies.  A conglomeration of studies suggests that about 10% of Americans are deficient in the digestive enzymes needed to digest their food.

Reasons for enzyme deficiencies include:

  • Damaged microvilli in the intestine
  • Low-grade inflammation in the stomach
  • Infections, such as H. pylori
  • Toxicity
  • Stress
  • Nutritional deficits
  • Imbalanced pH
  • Inhibitors in food, such as phytates in grains or beans that have not soaked or fermented
  • Free radical oxidation
  • Alcohol abuse

If we don’t have the enzymes to properly break down the foods that we eat, we won’t be able to absorb the nutrients from those foods well.  And if we don’t get the nutrients we need from our food, then our bodies ask for more food, which can result in obesity.

Testing for Digestive Enzyme Levels:

There are several ways to measure digestive enzymes on tests such as the Gut Zoomer,  GI-Map, or Comprehensive Stool Analysis.  The simplest is to measure Pancreatic Elastase on any stool test.  While the normal lab value is >200 ug/mL, optimal levels are >400 ug/mL.  I’ll be happy to help you order any of these tests, and there are also other tests that GI Specialists can do.

You can also test empirically—just try taking some digestive enzymes and see if they help!

Sources of Digestive Enzymes:

Enzymes can be derived from animals, plants, or grown on a certain type of fungus.  While they all aid in digestion, each type has its own unique characteristics.

Pancreatic enzymes (from cow, goat, or pig pancreatic tissue):

  • Used for cystic fibrosis
  • Helps stabilize blood glucose levels for those with diabetes or hypoglycemia
  • Only works at pH above 8, so not in the stomach where the large part of digestion takes place
  • Some may develop an allergic reaction

Fungal-based enzymes (grown on Aspergillus and though free of mycotoxins, may not be suitable for those with mold issues):

  • Used in food production for centuries
  • Works in the low pH of the stomach
  • Not derived from animal protein so fewer allergic reactions

Plant-based enzymes (from green stems of pineapple or green papaya):

  • Digests protein
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Reduces swelling throughout the body
  • Reduces the time it takes bruises to heal by about 50 percent

Types of Enzymes:

From the above sources, enzyme blends are made.  There are many types to choose from, based on what digestive problem or type of food you tend to have problems with.

  • Full-spectrum enzyme supplements—help to break down proteins, fats, carbs
  • Gluten-digesting enzymes—help to break down hidden gluten in foods due to cross-contamination, though those with Celiac Disease or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity still need to avoid gluten as much as possible
  • Lactose digesting enzymes—help those with lactose intolerance to be able to consume dairy products
  • Lipase-loaded enzymes—help break down fats
  • Amylase-loaded enzymes—help break down carbohydrates
  • Alpha-galactosidase loaded enzymes—help break down beans and cruciferous vegetables.
  • Protease-loaded enzymes—have different uses, depending on if taken with or between meals.

Proteolytic (protease-loaded) enzymes:

Proteolytic enzymes deserve extra special attention. They are usually derived from the pancreas, pineapple, and papaya, though some are derived from just pineapple and papaya.  Proteolytic enzymes break down amino acids into smaller protein chains.

When taken with meals they:

  • Support the stomach and pancreas
  • Help to prevent food poisoning
  • Help alleviate food allergies
  • Support immune function
  • Increase circulation to the bone

When taken between meals (so as not to be used in food digestion), they:

  • Reduce inflammation throughout the body, proving to be helpful with arthritis, injuries, and pain (14).

Purchasing digestive enzymes:

Enzymes are rated by their activity level rather than by their weight.  When you purchase an enzyme supplement, you’ll see units such as HUT, FID, DU, PC, FIP, LU, and ALU to show how much enzyme activity the product has.  These units vary by the country the enzyme is made in and what type of enzymes is being measured, which makes it really hard to compare digestive enzyme products.

If an enzyme label shows only the weight (measured in milligrams or micrograms), you cannot know if there are any active enzymes in the product at all!  Enzyme supplements are very stable and will last for at least 3 years, so many do not have expiration dates

With so many different types of digestive enzymes for different digestive conditions, it’s very helpful to talk to someone knowledgeable in the digestive process and digestive enzymes to know what is best for you to take.

If you’d like to see what enzyme is the best for you, click  here  for a 20 minute consult to discuss this.

Guide to Soaking Beans & Legumes

If you’d like to find out more about how to properly soak all types of beans and legumes, pick up my free guide here.



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Guide to Soaking Beans & Legumes

If you’d like to find out more about how to properly soak all types of beans and legumes, pick up my free guide here.

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