All of the work done in your body is carried out by enzyme reactions. Your heart beats, your food goes through the process of digestion, you can read, walk, heal from injuries, all because of the action of enzymes. If you slip on an icy step and sprain your ankle, enzymes are immediately activated to bring extra nutrient-rich blood and fluids to the area to stimulate healing. The bruising and swelling you see on the ankle are the result of these natural, protective actions of the body, using enzymes to heal itself. Sometimes the body can over-react and the swelling and pain can become so severe that it begins to impede the healing process. At this point, in addition to the simple measures of elevation and cold applications, you might use an OTC anti-inflammatory drug like aspirin or ibuprofen, even though these carry a number of potential side effects, such as stomach or kidney irritation.
A more natural approach that is safe and effective is the use of concentrated food enzymes. These can come from either plants or glandular extracts and can be used to reduce inflammation at the site of the injury and relieve swelling and pain. Enzymes are small protein molecules with very specific jobs and the body uses thousands of them. Each one has a certain pH and temperature range that keeps it happy and active. Many plant enzymes are active within a wider pH range than glandulars. This makes plant enzymes a good choice for supporting digestion because the pH range between the stomach and small intestine is fairly broad.
But there is another, perhaps more important use of enzyme therapy for patients with disorders of digestion. While enzymes are often used for pancreatic insufficiency or after gallbladder surgery, many people also benefit from enzyme support to treat common problems such as heartburn, constipation, diarrhea and food intolerance. Here’s why:
Foods today contain fewer enzymes than foods did a hundred years ago. Why? Because in the natural world, both plant and animal foods in their raw state contain a significant amount of natural enzymes that assist in digestion when we eat them. But in the modern world, all these foods come to our table enzyme depleted. How does this happen? Well, several ways – pasteurizing, hybridization, irradiating and genetic modification are all methods used to keep our food supply safe and shelf stable. And then, of course, we cook them, which deactivates even more of the heat sensitive enzymes. This is not to suggest that we should eat all our foods raw, but it is an argument for eating at least half of our plant foods raw.
The fact that modern foods are enzyme depleted means that our bodies have to produce more enzymes just for the digestion of what we eat. And… those enzymes have many other functions in the body besides just digestion. In the case of your sprained ankle, consider that the enzymes (in this case, proteases) that you were pumping out to digest enzyme depleted food should have been directed to the ankle sprain. The question is, can the body make enough enzymes for both digestion and repair? The answer is conditional – if we were getting a full complement of enzymes from our diet, then for most of us, yes, but with an enzyme depleted diet, not necessarily.
This story is not complete without a scintillating discussion of brush border enzymes and food intolerance, but that is for the next time. Until then, if you have issues with digestion or suffer from food intolerances, consider a visit with a naturopathic physician who is knowledgeable about enzyme therapy.
Dr. Ellen Sauter is a naturopathic physician practicing general family medicine at The Benchmark Clinic of Integrative Medicine in NW Portland. She treats patients on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and can be reached at 503-223-7067.