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Why do we need enzymes? They work nonstop, 24/7, always in the background, silently running things. I like to imagine their central command sounds something like this, “Pancreas, we need your digestive enzymes – pronto – to break this salad down into absorbable nutrients! Proteolytic enzymes, there’s inflammation in the knee joints to chew up and send packing!” They truly never stop working because your life depends on them.
What is the importance of enzymes? Enzymes are so vital for your life that I simply cannot even explain the science of nutrition without them. They are biologically active proteins, and more than 1300 of them are found in each of your cells. Everything you eat needs enzymes to break it down into nutrients you can use, and every biochemical reaction in your organs, tissues, and cells needs enzymes in order to happen at the speed you need to maintain your life. Without enzymes, your body would struggle to keep thinking, seeing, hearing feeling, moving, digesting, detoxifying, generating energy, and so much more.
When joint pains, digestive issues, and even chronic illnesses – including cancer – show up on the scene, you can take this as an SOS sign from your enzymes. This isn’t you simply “growing old before your time,” it’s a decline in your enzyme production. We mistakenly associate these maladies as “normal” signs of aging – but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Listen, your body isn’t some ticking time bomb, waiting to go off into a variety of ailments when you reach a certain number of years of age. The truth is that you start with a limited ability to make enzymes, and little by little, day by day, your enzyme production declines, starting around age 30.
Edward Howell, MD, called your limited ability to make enzymes your “enzyme potential.” (He lived from 1898 to 1988, and studied enzymes from the 1940s until his death. That’s almost 50 years of research into your body’s enzymes!) He found that your enzyme potential is determined by both your genetics and the environment you inherit from your parents, known as your epigenetics. People who have great potential are those who seem to be able to eat and drink whatever they want, rarely exercise, and live stressful lifestyles, and still enjoy what appears to be good health.
On the flip side are people who seem like they were born sick. They have to be careful about everything they do or it will only bring on fatigue, illness, and even a shortened life span. Most of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes – if we fail to be mindful and make healthy choices, it eventually catches up to us and shows itself in the form of fatigue, sickness, and premature aging.
So you see, the choices you make in your life form your epigenetics and determine whether you will have an abundance of health and enzymes, or whether you will struggle. Those years of hard partying in your twenties seem inconsequential at the time, but later, when your liver shows itself congested with fat and toxins and struggles to make enough bile, you find you have fatigue and digestive woes, and mistakenly chock it up to “old age.”
Dr. Howell found that the faster you use up your enzyme potential, the shorter your life will be. He categorized enzymes into 3 basic types: digestive, metabolic, and food-based, and found that your body keeps a balance between them. If you use most of your enzymes so you can digest your food, then few are left to support metabolic processes, and vice versa. His solution was simple: increase the amount of food-based enzymes in your diet.
Since his death, Dr. Howell’s pioneering enzyme research has been expanded on, and we know that there are more factors than DNA and your cellular environment (epigenetics) that affect your enzyme potential. It isn’t simply because you’re getting older, it’s because your internal organs are sustaining cumulative damage from the diseases, diet, chemicals, and toxins you’re being exposed to on a daily basis, and they aren’t able to make as many enzymes as they used to.
Digestive enzymes have one job to do, but it’s an important one – help you digest, break down your food, absorb the nutrients, and excrete the waste products. This entire process, for just one meal, can take 3 to 10 days, depending on what – and how much – you’ve eaten. You are basically in the process of digestion nonstop throughout your life, unless you fast. You can see how even a small disruption in this process can really create a drain on your enzyme potential.
The need for enzymes starts as soon as you chew your first bite of food. Your salivary glands release saliva, which contains enzymes that immediately start breaking down carbohydrates. The flow of saliva also regulates how much stomach acid you’ll release. If you drink liquids with your meals, you not only dilute your saliva but also dilute your stomach acid and confuse the signaling process, ultimately making less stomach acid.
Less stomach acid means less bile, and also fewer digestive enzymes are released from the pancreas into the small intestine. The result of all of this is food not being digested properly or absorbed, and inflammation builds. Once you have inflammation in the small intestine, the small, fingerlike projections known as microvilli become flattened.
These tiny structures normally have digestive enzymes attached to their ends that break down the food. Once they are flattened, the enzymes have nothing to attach to and once again, digestion is impaired. This is the mechanism behind Celiac Disease and other malabsorption issues.
Now, let’s add chronic stress to the situation. Your body can’t repair itself like it should, because it’s been stuck in “fight or flight” mode for too long. Your body sees all types of stress the same way, whether you’re being chased by a bear or had a bad day at work, etc. This effectively ages your digestive system prematurely, causing everything from low stomach acid and digestive enzyme production to dysfunctional transit times and more, resulting in malabsorption and nutrient deficiencies.
Without enough stomach acid or digestive enzymes, you can’t absorb protein. What are digestive enzymes made of? You guessed it, proteins. Now you don’t have enough raw materials on hand to make your digestive enzymes, and you’re stuck in a vicious cycle that deteriorates your health over time. This has nothing to do with the number of years you’ve been on the planet, by the way.
So, if you want to preserve your enzyme potential and reverse the premature aging of your digestion, you need to take some pressure off the process and get more enzymes in – but how?
Take a look at your face in the mirror. Do you have a horizontal crease between your chin and mouth? According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, it may be a sign you have malabsorption issues and need more enzymes and stomach acid.
Your declining enzyme production is part of the vicious cycle that ages your organs prematurely. Once this cycle starts, the clock is ticking, and it’s only a matter of time before that dreaded inflammation that’s building as your enzyme potential is waning, takes its toll and spills over into a full blown disease process. Normally, metabolic enzymes would step in and break that inflammation down, but there’s a problem – these are proteolytic enzymes that are made from protein, and you don’t have enough raw materials on hand to make them because of your malabsorption issues.
The best option you have to increase your enzyme levels is to get enzymes from food and nutritional supplements. This means your diet needs to be full of enzyme-rich foods, and you need to take enzyme supplements if you want to turn back the clock and restore your health. I’m actually in favor of healthy people taking supplemental enzymes too, because I believe it preserves your enzyme potential and promotes longer lasting health and vitality.
The enzyme-rich foods I recommend you add to your diet include lactofermented foods like unpasteurized sauerkraut, and raw vegetables, raw milk cheeses, and fresh fruits in moderation. You can add fresh raw vegetable juices to your diet for their high enzyme content, but limit it to 8 ounces per day of low glycemic vegetables until healthy digestion is restored. Be sure to chew your food thoroughly and delay drinking any liquids until at least 30 minutes after your meal, for maximum saliva production. This will start the digestive cascade going in the right direction.
As a side note, have you noticed that people who do the keto diet tend to look like they’ve aged dramatically shortly after they start? I believe this is due, in part, to the low enzyme content of the diet and in part to its dehydrating effects. With any diet, you have to make a concerted effort to add live, enzyme-rich foods in daily, but this is especially challenging with the keto diet. This is why many proponents of the diet recommend supplementing with digestive enzymes and electrolyte minerals.
When you first start trying to correct your digestion, your signals may still be crossed and you may not be making enough stomach acid. I recommend a teaspoon of raw apple cider vinegar first thing in the morning, and taking UNI KEY Health’s HCl +2 right before each meal. This formula not only has the acid your stomach is missing, but also contains pepsin, an important enzyme necessary for protein digestion. When protein starts being broken down properly then the raw materials needed to make enzymes are once again available.
Start with one capsule at each meal, and gradually increase your dose. If you notice warmth or burning after taking them, decrease the dose by one pill. Do not take if you have active ulcer disease.
As I previously mentioned, I believe everyone can benefit from taking an enzyme supplement. I use Ultra Inf-Zyme Forte. These enzymes are versatile and can be used to promote healthy digestive enzyme levels, as well as metabolic enzyme levels. When taken with meals, they act as digestive enzymes, breaking down foods into absorbable nutrients, which increases your energy production. When taken on an empty stomach between meals, they function as proteolytic metabolic enzymes and hunt for inflammation to break down – including in those painful, swollen joints.
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