The digestive system is an enormously sophisticated and complex operation made up of many organs. A north to south process, it begins in the brain where it is triggered by the sight, sound, and smell of food.
This begins the production of saliva in the mouth which is the first place that food begins to be broken down, or digested, especially carbohydrates. Once swallowed, food passes through the esophagus into the stomach where the digestion of proteins begins.
By design, the stomach is the only highly acidic environment in the body. This allows proteins to be properly broken down, as well as the killing of pathogens that we may have ingested. The stomach also continues the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats.
When the contents of the stomach have reached the proper acidity level, they are ready to move into the intestine where they are bathed in enzymes and bicarbonates.
I recently heard a speaker who said that this ‘enzyme bathing” is what accounts for most of our immune function.
Bile, which is produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder, helps break down fat. When all of the ingested nutrients have been broken down, they are absorbed through the walls of the small intestines and travel through the blood stream as needed throughout the body. Whew!
It’s all an amazing process, which could not happen at all were it not for the enzymes we have in our bodies, (the endogenous ones ), and the exogenous ones. For a little more background on enzymes, in general, click here to read my last newsletter/blog.
Recall that all the food we eat comes with enough of its own enzymes to digest that piece of food – apple, carrot, whatever. When food is cooked, those enzymes are destroyed, so the body borrows from its supply of digestive enzymes to assist in the process. Hence, eating more raw food assists in digestion, because fewer digestive enzymes have to be removed from the “bank” of them that we started with. And, as I noted earlier, as these digestive enzymes deplete in number as we age, we begin to have more and more digestive ailments – lactose intolerance and acid reflux, to name a couple.
There are three types of digestive enzymes
Protease breaks down protein into small peptides and amino acids
Lipase breads down fat into fatty acids and glycerol
Amylase breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars.
Again, all enzymes are extremely sensitive to heat. They are destroyed above 120 degrees. Even low levels of heat greatly reduce the digestive system ability.
And while all raw foods contain enough enzymes to get themselves digested well, there are some foods particularly high in enzymes, which can help the process in general.
Here are nine of them.
- Pineapple is rich in bromelain, a protease, thus helpful in the digestion and absorption of proteins.
- Papaya contains papain, another protease, which is helpful in easing symptoms of IBS, such as constipation and bloating. They are best eaten ripe – unripe or semi-ripe papaya may stimulate contractions in pregnant women.
- Mango is rich in amylases, which increase as the fruit becomes more ripe and thus sweeter. Chewing all food slowly before swallowing helps the saliva enzymes break down carbohydrates. Mango can help the process.
- Honey, 400 pounds of which are eaten in America each year, has many beneficial compounds, including enzymes that work to break down proteins and various sugars. If digestive health is important to you, buy raw local honey. Processed honey is often heated, which destroys the enzymes.
- Bananas have enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates into more easily absorbed sugar. T, a definite digestive health age. One study they are also high in fiber. One study showed a positive connection between eating bananas and the growth of healthy gut bacteria, and lessened bloating.
- Avocado, unlike other fruits are high in healthy fats and low in sugar and contain the enzyme lipase, which is also made by the pancreas.
- Sauerkraut is a type of fermented cabbage with a taste all its own. The fermentation process, (see more here), also adds more digestive enzymes. Additionally, sauerkraut is considered a probiotic food, because it contains healthy gut bacteria that boost digestive health and immunity. While it’s not everybody’s favorite thing to eat, it is a definite superfood. I highly recommend it. Again, if you buy it rather than make your own, which is not a cumbersome project, be sure to get the raw, unpasteurized variety, which will be in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. Cooking it kills the enzymes – the value.
- Other fermented foods that are enzyme rich include Kimchi, which is a Korean dish made of fermented vegetables. Another is Miso, popular in Japanese cuisine, is made with fermented soybeans, salt, an koji, a type of fungus. Miso is helps to digest and absorb foods.
- Kiwi, another tropical fruit is known to ease digestion, reduce bloating, and help relieve constipation.
- Ginger has been a part of traditional food preparation and medicine for thousands of years. Some of its impressive health benefits may be attributed to its digestive enzyme. As one cause of indigestion is thought to be food sitting in the stomach for too long, ginger was found in one study to help food move faster through the stomach by promoting contractions. Ginger also heals increase the body’s own production of digestive enzymes and curbs nausea and vomiting.
All the varieties of enzymes are proteins that break down larger molecules of fats, proteins and carbohydrates into smaller molecules. Insufficient numbers and varieties of digestive enzymes means that the body is unable to digest food particles properly, which can lead to food intolerances and other digestive ills.
The first signs o enzyme deficiency are indigestion, gas, and bloating after eating meals, or too many cracker and chips snacks. Fatigue, premature aging and weight gain are also signs of low enzymes in the body.
Linda Page, in Healthy Healing writes, “ Most nutrient deficiency problems as we age result not from the lack of the nutrients themselves, but from our lack of enzymes to absorb them.”
Eating a diet which is high in raw, uncooked fruits and vegetables, including some fermented ones, is a good assurance of healthy digestion. Some foods like those listed above yield “bonus” enzymes, so making sure to include them in your diet will help promote better digestion, better gut health.