When you ask someone why they eat a lot of raw foods, one of the things they may say is that they eat raw foods to obtain the benefits of live enzymes. But is this really accurate or an idea that’s debated among health experts and scientists? Enzymes can be confusing, trying to get to the bottom of what enzymes are and how they impact your health can seem a bit complicated, but I want to help you understand this topic easily and clearly. Then you’re free to go off and do your own research and form an opinion for yourself.
How do Enzymes work?
Enzymes are responsible for reactions that either break things apart, or fuse things together. They are the catalyst for all chemical reactions that happen in your body, from breaking down your food, to allowing your hormones to be processed so that they can have their effect on the body.
Enzymes have what is known as an “active site” where a “substrate” will bind to it, and then the enzyme can do its work of aiding whichever chemical reaction needs to take place. There are literally hundreds of different enzymes in the human body, all with unique and specific functions.
What are the 3 main types of enzymes in the body?
Metabolic enzymes: These are the ones that are responsible for the building up (anabolic) reactions in the body or the breaking down (catabolic) reactions in the body.
Digestive enzymes: These help us to break down our food, and the live food enzymes that are found in raw foods themselves. These proteins make reactions happen much faster than they would if enzymes were not present.
Body Enzymes: Your body comes complete with all the enzymes you need to break down your foods, as well as to make all the chemical reactions that your body needs for life (there are people who have genetic abnormalities and are born without an enzyme or two, but generally if this is you, you will know!) An example of this would be amylase. As humans, we all produce saliva in order to help us break down our foods. Did you know that saliva is produced for more than just lubrication? Our saliva actually contains an enzyme called amylase, which is there to help start the breakdown of the complex starch molecule amylose in our mouths, before it even hits your stomach! The stomach is where most of our protein digesting enzymes are produced. In the small intestine we release bile which helps to break fat molecules down into smaller pieces, so that lipase enzymes can better break down the fat that we have ingested.
Most Caucasian people lack the enzyme lactase which is needed to break down the molecule lactose. Lactose is the sugar component in dairy. Without this enzyme large molecules of lactose are left in our systems unbroken down. They will eventually travel to the colon where they will ferment and draw water to themselves. This is what causes the gas, bloating and other uncomfortable symptoms that people who are “lactose intolerant” suffer with. So as you can see, if our enzymes are not functioning optimally it can really cause problems for us!
Some terms to get you started:
There are a few terms that you will need to know in order to be able to fully understand enzymes, so here they are to make it easier for you to read this!
Protein: A biological structure made up of amino acids that are held together by peptide bonds. (You can think of peptide bonds like strings that hold amino acids together in chain-like formations).
Amino Acids: These are the building blocks for protein chains. There are 28 amino acids found in the human body. The order, quantity and specific type of amino acids are what create a protein, as well as dictating its function.
Catabolic Reaction: A catabolic reaction will take a more complicated structure, and make it simpler. A catabolic reaction will break down longer chains of molecules into simpler components, for example, breaking Sucrose down into glucose and fructose. Another illustration to picture is the act of taking a lego structure and pulling the pieces apart until all you have left is the individual pieces. Not exactly a chemical reaction, but the point is still illustrated.
Anabolic Reaction: These reactions take simpler components (simple molecules or simple structures) and binds them together with other components. These reactions build molecules up to form more complex structures. An example of this would be when our bodies take individual glucose molecules and attach them together in our livers to create glycogen, the body’s storage form of glucose. With our lego, this is where you take the individual pieces and attach them together to build something like a castle or a tower.
Substrate: This is the item or molecule that the enzyme is going to work on. The substrate is what will go through either an anabolic or a catabolic reaction to create something new.
Active Site: This is the area of an enzyme where the substrate will bind (or attach) so that the chemical reaction can take place. These sites are very specific, and will only react with the substrates that are specifically designed to fit into the active site shape.
Catalyst: A molecule that will speed up the rate at which chemical reactions happen.
So what is an Enzyme? An enzyme is a protein that can be made up of a select few amino acids all the way up to hundreds of amino acids. These protein structures are very specifically designed and generally do one task only.
What do the enzymes in raw foods really do for us?
The enzymes that are found in raw foods are there as the plant’s natural decomposition mechanism. They are there so that when the plant knows that it is no longer vital, such as when it loses enough nutrition, it will start the process of breaking itself down so that it can be returned to the earth. This is why raw foods go bad. They contain natural food enzymes that are there for the sole purpose of self-destruction. It was once theorized that our bodies could use these food enzymes to break down raw foods instead of having to draw on its own stores of digestive enzymes, therefore saving our bodies from using our finite number of enzymes. This has since been proven false. The naturally acidic state of the stomach denatures all enzymes that we ingest in the form of live food. Keep in mind that enzymes only work when they are kept at a constant temperature and PH.
Eating the live enzymes of plants may not give us any sort of direct benefit from sparing our own enzymes; however, this does not mean that they are not valuable to us or that the plants that contain those enzymes are not valuable to us. Raw plant foods (especially fruits and greens) require the least amount of digestive energy and digestive enzymes from our body than any other category of food generally speaking. This is one of the plethora of reasons why they are so good for us. Processed foods are very difficult to digest, require far more enzymatic activity, and are very complicated in their structures. Raw foods are much simpler, and your body is equip with all the tools it needs in order to properly digest and break them down. We do not have a monosodiumglutamatase enzyme.
Eating whole, raw and ripe fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds is much easier on your digestion, requires less of your finite enzyme supply to break down, and over all has a much easier time being processed by our body than processed food does. So give your body a much needed break from working so hard for you by treating it to whole foods every meal!
Enzymes As A Supplement
In an ideal world, we would all have perfectly functioning digestive systems. We would eat in a calm environment, chewing each bite of nutrient dense whole food very well, mindfully dining until just satiated with food combinations that supported full and complete digestion.
In the real world, food is often processed or shipped great distances and thus lower in nutrition. We may be eating on the go with kids running around screaming, phones going off, the T.V blaring or while we are commuting from one place to another. We are all to often stressed out and rushed when we are eating, or we are distracted from our food and eating in combinations that are difficult for our bodies to process. Our fast paced lifestyles leave much to be desired when it comes to supporting seamless digestion.
In these cases, taking a digestive enzyme supplement can be of great help. What a digestive enzyme supplement will do is aid your body in breaking your food down more completely, so that you can absorb more from it, thus allowing your body to access a greater number of nutrients. Digestive enzymes will also help you to prevent having larger pieces of undigested food traveling through your digestive system which can cause damage and other issues.
If you’ve recently changed your diet to include more raw foods, or if you’ve began t pin-point allergies and are trying new foods, this too may be a time where digestive enzymes can work in your favor. Sometimes when switching the diet to include more cleansing or healing foods, the body takes time to adjust and in this case taking a digestive enzyme with your meal can help prevent unwanted tummy aches or bloating.
A good digestive enzyme supplement will have enzymes to break down all three of the macronutrient groups which are protein, carbohydrates and fats.
Look for an enzyme that contains at least the following:
- Amylase – breaks down amylose, a carbohydrate.
- Protease – To digest proteins
- Lipase – To digest fats
- Cellulase – To digest cellulose, a carbohydrate
You will be able to find enzyme blends that contain far more ingredients than this, and that can be a really good thing depending upon what you are eating. There are digestive enzymes out there that can help break down gluten if you have a hard time with gluten but know you are going to be in a situation where you have to consume it, as well as lactose for those who have a hard time with lactose.
There are some really great brands out there but you want to make sure you’re getting quality. Here are two that we recommend:
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