Food is our fuel. We get our energy to keep going from food's proteins, carbohydrates, fats, minerals, vitamins and enzymes. All of us must have all of them ' they're essential for our growth and healing. But our bodies have to be able to break down these components of food in order to work properly. Digestion matters.
We're not so fond of thinking of food as fuel, preferring to focus on eating what we enjoy, crave or what is convenient. That may work for some of us, but why do so many of us feel crummy after we eat? Medications for indigestion and digestive problems may ease our symptoms, but in the long run, health problems will be inevitable ' because we are essentially asking our bodies to perform in ways that were not intended.
For years I struggled with indigestion, and I went on a journey to find intestinal peace. I wandered in and out of bookstores, workshops and food regimes. I'd feel better, then worse, but couldn't seem to find a routine that worked. I suspected my lack of energy was related to digestion, but couldn't figure it all out. Eventually, years of digestive imbalance led to more serious health problems. That's when I was forced to take a closer look at the science of digestion.
What is digestion all about, anyway? Many things make for good digestion, but it turns out that protein molecules called enzymes are essential. Without them, digestion cannot take place. How can we get them? All natural foods contain them, our own body makes them, and they can be augmented through plant or animal enzyme supplements.
Enzymes are found in all living animal and plant cells. All foods in their natural state contain the exact type and amount of enzymes for their own digestion and will naturally rot, or digest themselves. We all know the stench of meat gone bad and have seen bruises on fresh produce. These bruises show where food enzymes have begun to digest the food. Without enzymes, fresh fruit and vegetables would not rot ' nor would they ripen.
If enzymes are needed for digestion, and foods in their natural state have just what they need to digest themselves, then eating fresh fruits and vegetables generally turns out to be a good thing. But the good news comes with some bad news, because enzymes prevent food from lasting for very long on our grocery store shelves. In order to fill those shelves, something has to give ' and that something is the enzymes. We're fond of processed and packaged food, but the enzymes are removed to extend their shelf life.
While vitamins and minerals that are removed are often added back into our processed food, enzymes are not. That's right, the most essential component for digestion of food is completely processed out. To make matters worse, enzymes are destroyed by heat, so they are lost in most cooking. We may redeem some enzymes in a quick stir-fry, but generally when we cook fresh food, including meat, to temperatures over 118 degrees, we lose the natural enzymes. Without the essential component of enzymes to digest it, how valuable is this 'food' in providing energy, or fuel, for our bodies? Consider your own daily meals. How many are from food that is packaged or cooked?
If we don't eat foods that have active enzymes, our bodies have to do all the work. This is not to say that we should all be on raw food diets; clearly this is an extreme diet choice. (Some people are even advised to avoid raw foods for their health.) Yet with all the talk about food and diets in our culture, where are the conversations about enzymes? Whatever food choices we make, we need to remember that enzymes are essential for digestion.
We've all been told to chew our food well because digestion begins in the mouth. Why? It's the enzymes in our saliva that are responsible. There are thousands of enzymes keeping our body in working order, but they are essentially of two types: digestive and metabolic.
Our digestive enzymes help break down food so that nutrients can be released. Metabolic enzymes are not really intended for digestion because they are needed elsewhere to keep the cells, tissues and organs of the body in good health and repair; without them our immune system is weakened.
Our body's digestive enzymes know what they're doing and have specialized roles in the digestive process. To keep it very simple, there are different enzymes for digesting each component of food. If the different parts of food don't get digested where they need to, either because there aren't enzymes available or the organs are not able to function properly (because the metabolic enzymes that keep them in repair have previously been used to digest food), the opportunity is lost.
Food ends up undigested and ferments in the colon ' and that is a problem... sometimes a big problem. It's estimated that we have an average of five to 25 pounds of undigested fecal matter just sitting in our colons, and these toxins provide a feast for the unwanted bacteria, yeast and parasites that live there. This can get downright messy, and, in some cases, the intestinal lining is weakened from the burden. Very small tears are formed where this toxic matter can escape and the body has to figure out how to clean it all up. Ever deal with a flooded basement?
Fortunately we have beneficial bacteria in our colons that try to keep the unwanted guests in balance. But when we eat an overabundance of processed carbohydrates and sugar (our average is now 150 pounds of sugar per person each year), we're feeding them, not us. And never doubt the power of these small critters to wreak havoc on your health. Besides causing physical problems, an overload of toxins can make us feel irritable and sluggish, confused, angry or overly emotional. Like us, these organisms release their waste, which ends up in our system and complicates our chemistry.
This is why a diet high in fiber is important. Fiber moves the toxins out of your system and there is less of a buffet for the bacteria, and less gas and bloating for us. Probiotics (like acidophilus) feed the beneficial bacteria and have traditionally been recommended to support good bacteria after a course of antibiotics (which kill both good and bad bacteria). Probiotics can be taken other times as well.
Ideally, then, we should get the enzymes we need for digestion by eating food that contains enzymes or using the digestive enzymes our body has available. Unfortunately, if we don't have enough digestive enzymes, metabolic enzymes may be called on. Then they're not available for their intended work, like repairing tissue and fighting disease. Force your digestive system out of order and your immune system must work harder.
'Think of having a bank account, very much like your own checking account, of enzymes,' explains Dr. Brian Wussow, from Wussow Chiropractic in Middleton. 'When your money is gone, you have to make a deposit before you can make a withdrawal. In the body, we have a limited capacity of how many enzymes we can make per day. So if we have to use most of them up digesting processed food or a gluttonous meal, we can't write any more enzyme checks for the immune system and the other vital systems of the body.'
There are also plant-based enzyme supplements available over the counter that enzyme proponents say aid in digestion.
Plant enzymes are thought to be helpful because they can digest in a wider range of pH than our own bodies, so they can begin to digest food before it reaches the stomach or intestines. This means that you don't have to depend only on your own stomach enzymes, and if your food is partly digested before it gets to your intestines, your pancreas works less. With more enzymes to do the work, digestion is more complete and there is less matter left in the colon to rot.
'Plant enzymes are safe and promote health by eliminating the need for the body to provide all of the enzymes for digesting cooked and processed food,' says Emily Light, a holistic nutrition specialist in the supplements section at Madison's Community Pharmacy.
'Digestive enzymes sold over the counter are potentially safe for long-term use and can be beneficial,' says Richard Kilmer, pharmacist at Community Pharmacy, 'but don't assume that your digestive disorders are caused by a lack of enzymes. Something else could be going on. If you have symptoms that persist, see a physician.'
Knowing more about the science of digestion has changed my worldview. I'm slowly making lifestyle changes that keep my digestion in balance and don't overspend my enzyme resources; I don't want them to retire before I do. I feel more at home in my body, have more energy and feel better now than I did a decade ago. Now I understand why the choices I make about food today might relate to feeling good in another decade. And as we prepare to live longer lives, our future wellness depends upon the choices we make today.