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They’re called enzymes – pretty amazing proteins that act as catalysts, enabling and accelerating many chemical processes. Take the laundry we mentioned: Enzymes allow washing powder to clean clothes at low temperatures, by breaking up the proteins in tough food stains.
Despite their importance, enzymes seldom share the same spotlight as other nutrients such as vitamins or minerals. While everyone has heard of Vitamin C and Magnesium, hardly anyone knows what trypsin does.
The modern understanding of enzymes came through ground breaking chemistry research. Eduard Buchner1, a German scientist discovered that yeast ferments even if all living yeast cells had been removed. He concluded that enzymes were the active ingredient in fermentation. Since then, enzyme research has been essential in understanding the human body.
Enzymes act as catalysts, transforming energy that is not yet available to an organism into a useful form. Some do this with the help of other substances, called co-enzymes, which specifically bind to ‘their’ enzyme and act as an enabler. And just as co-enzymes only work with a specific enzyme, each enzyme is responsible for one precise task. While enzymes are involved in many metabolic processes, we’ll focus on the role of digestive enzymes in this article.
Digestive enzymes2 are produced in various organs: in the salivary glands (amylase, lipase), in the stomach (pepsin), or in the pancreas (trypsin). For example pepsin and trypsin break down proteins, amylase works on carbohydrates, and lipase targets fats. By breaking down these macronutrients, they allow micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals to diffuse through the intestinal walls into our blood. Without enzymes, these micronutrients would simply pass through our system, without being absorbed. Enzymes are therefore essential for our nutritional balance.
Today, less nutritious, often processed food, stress, a sedentary lifestyle, and also chronic worrying have been linked to a potential increase of inflammatory stress in our bodies. Enzymes can help to lessen this inflammatory stress and, for example, have been credited to reduce Osteoarthritis-related pain3. Furthermore, enzymes are powerful antioxidants, reducing the level of tissue damage caused by free radicals.
A growing body of research suggests that as we age, enzymes can begin to malfunction, especially if we suffer from a chronic disease4. A well-balanced diet that includes all necessary vitamins and nutrients helps enzymes to work efficiently.
While digestive-related symptoms such as gas or bloating are sometimes related to an enzyme deficiency, the research on this correlation is as of yet inconclusive. Such symptoms can be associated with a pancreatic insufficiency, but they may also be caused by food intolerances or an unbalanced diet. It may be worth considering to change ones diet, and if that doesn’t seem to bring any relief you can increase your enzymes with a few simple steps.
If you want to get more of these hidden heroes into your system, there are a variety of enzyme-rich foods to choose from. It’s best to select raw or fermented foods – enzymes are very heat-sensitive and destroyed in cooked foods.
Fruits are always good. Papaya and pineapple contain the enzymes papain and bromelain respectively, which can act as anti-inflammatory agents in the body. Fermented foods feature lots of active enzymes: pickles, traditional Asian Kimchi salad, drinks such as Kombucha and Kefir, as well as yoghurts are great sources. Try combining fermented beverages with fruits in a smoothie – it’s a refreshing drink that provides you with many vitamins on top of valuable enzymes.
It’s important to balance this with a healthy vitamin intake – many co-enzymes are actually derived from vitamins. A diet based on organic whole-foods, including all essential macro- and micronutrients and as little processed components as possible, will help boost your enzyme levels and eventually your overall wellbeing.
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