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Enzymes are a wonder in a world that doesn’t sing their praises enough. These essential components are complex proteins produced by body cells that help bring about or speed up chemical activities such as the digestion of food. Enzymes are also known as catalysts. Life could not exist without them, since they cause reactions to occur in milliseconds as opposed to eons. That’s right! Think how rough it would be if last night’s dinner took decades to digest.

More than 5,000 enzymes have been identified, each with a specific function. Small amounts of enzymes can create big changes. Without them, some reactions would not occur, and the body would not function properly.

Enzymes are required for: production of energy; absorption of oxygen; fighting infections and healing wounds; getting nutrients into your cells; reducing inflammation; dissolving blood clots; carrying away toxic wastes; breaking down fats in the blood and regulating cholesterol and triglyceride levels; hormone regulation; and slowing the aging process. And this is just for starters!

By now you’re probably wondering how you can get more of these little miracle workers in your system. There are three basic categories of enzymes: digestive, metabolic and food-based. Digestive and metabolic enzymes are produced in the body, primarily in the pancreas. The food enzymes come from raw foods, so the more of those we eat, the better.

There are various digestive enzymes that help break down specific foods:

• Protease digests proteins

• Amylase digests carbohydrates

• Lipase digests fats

• Cellulase breaks down fiber

• Maltase converts complex sugars from grains into glucose

• Lactase digests milk sugar (lactose) in dairy products

• Phytase helps with overall digestion, especially in producing the B vitamins

• Sucrase digests most sugars

When we eat, amylase in our saliva begins to break down carbohydrates. As the food moves into the stomach, protease works on proteins. The food is pulverized in the stomach — visualize an internal blender, mechanically breaking down the food along with gastric juices to produce a milky-colored material called chyme. This material then passes into the small intestine where most of the digestion occurs, and lipase begins to break down the fats. Amylase finishes off the carbohydrates. All digestion and most absorption of nutrients are complete before food leaves the small intestine.

No wonder we get sleepy after a big meal. Our bodies are very busy getting all those nutrients into our bloodstream.

Metabolic enzymes are responsible for the growth, repair and maintenance of all body cells, including those that form tissue and organs. These enzymes are also important for the circulatory system and for cleaning the blood. As blood cleaners, these enzymes combat chronic inflammation, which if left unchecked, can lead to a multitude of chronic diseases.

Food enzymes come from — you guessed it — food. But only raw foods. Heating food above 116 degrees Fahrenheit deactivates most enzymes.

Hurray for easy food preparation! Eating these foods raw makes it easier for us to produce the enzymes necessary for our bodies to function at their best.

Here are some foods that rank high on the enzyme charts:

• Sprouted grains, sprouts

• Raw wheat germ

• Ginger root

• Papaya, pineapple, kiwi, mango, grapes

• Raw sauerkraut, raw kimchi, raw pickled vegetables

• Yogurt, kefir, cheese

• Avocados, bananas, dates, figs

• Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil

• Raw honey, bee pollen

• Raw and unpasteurized milk and butter

There are a few other ways to naturally increase enzyme levels. Reducing our overall food consumption, while increasing our intake of raw, living foods, reduces our need for digestive enzymes, leaving more energy for us to produce metabolic enzymes.

Remember your mother telling you to chew your food 30 times before swallowing? Well, once again, she was right. The longer you chew your food, the more your saliva enzymes can work on your food to get the digestive process going. This lessens the workload of the stomach and small intestine. We also eat less when we slow down, which brings us full circle to reducing our overall food consumption.

Attention gum chewers: Chewing gum tricks your body into thinking that food is on the way, so digestive enzymes start gearing up. What a waste of those miracle workers!

How do you know if you are experiencing an enzyme deficiency? Some signs are excess gas, diarrhea, indigestion, heartburn and constipation. Since the immune system is primarily in the gut, improper digestion and enzyme function may contribute to various diseases. Other signs may be reduced energy and stiff joints, which many blame on aging.

In conclusion, if eating a variety of raw foods, chewing my food well, eating slowly, and consuming a bit less will help me look and feel younger, I’ll give it a whirl. And I’ll pass on the chewing gum.

Carol Slager is a licensed pharmacist, author, blogger and health coach who lives in Schererville. Follow her monthly in Get Healthy and at inkwellcoaching.com.

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