Enzymes, Anti-Nutrients, and Digestion

The following is an excerpt from Doctor Stillman’s online course, “Practical Wellness.” To find out more or to subscribe, visit StillmanMD.com.

Most people do not think of enzymes as, “nutrients,” but the fact that all raw, fresh foods contain active enzymes would suggest that they are important in your diet. Enzymes, unlike minerals, certain vitamins, and macronutrients, can be destroyed by acid, heat, and many other factors, and even when refrigerated will degrade over time.

Enzymes are the molecular machines that perform all of life’s processes, whether they are enzymes in a papaya fruit or enzymes in your liver. Enzymes are complex proteins, which are made up of amino acids. A single enzyme may contain hundreds or thousands of individual amino acids. They may also contain carbohydrates and fats. They depend on a delicate balance of electrical and chemical bonds. The electrical bonds that hold them together can be very delicate. Even a few degrees difference in temperature can destroy an enzyme. The same is true for pH or the concentration of different ions or molecules. Most methods of food preservation change one of these conditions to destroy enzymes, preventing bacteria from generating energy and reproducing, and so preventing the food from spoiling. These methods, however, also destroy the enzymes in the food itself. There are some methods of food preservation, such as pickling, that instead of destroying the food, colonize it with beneficial bacteria. These are called probiotics. Until recently, peoples’ diets included large quantities of fresh, raw foods with active enzymes. These enzymes remain active when eaten and play a role in the digestion of your food. People with diseases that decrease their digestive enzymes, such as cystic fibrosis, require large enzyme pills to be able to digest their food and avoid malnutrition.

Enzymes are most intact in raw, fresh foods, seeds that have been sprouted, or in foods that have been fermented (and not pasteurized afterward). Other methods of food preservation or preparation, including cooking, destroy enzymes.

Within the cells that make up a food, the enzymes are carefully controlled and compartmentalized. The cell is careful not to allow digestive enzymes into parts of the cell that are vital to its survival. These enzymes are stored in special compartments called vesicles or organelles (which may have different names depending on their function, i.e. lysosome, phagolysosome, etc.). If it were to release these enzymes into, say, its nucleus, it could destroy the cell. Pancreatitis is an example of a disease in which digestive enzymes, produced by the pancreas, find their way out of their vesicles or organelles. Severe pancreatitis is life-threatening. The enzymes in the pancreas can literally digest the organ itself, leaving dead, rotting tissue in the center of their abdomen. This is often fatal. There is an old surgical aphorism — “don’t touch the pancreas!” Given that about half of what the pancreas does is to produce and secrete enzymes, this is a testament to the importance of enzymes.

Like a healthy pancreas, food that has been harvested, but not processed, still has its enzymes in its vesicles or organelles, where they cannot destroy other parts of the cell. Food that is crushed or blended will spoil faster, because their digestive enzymes are not contained within organelles or vesicles.

The power of enzymes should not be understated.

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