According to the American Nutrition Association, over 70 million Americans suffer from some kind of digestive complaint.
Whether that means heartburn, acid reflux, IBS, or one of the myriad other gut problems, understanding the root causes of these problems is the first step to taking action.
Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) doesn't contain much in the way of digestive nutrition. Short on fresh fruits, veggies, raw, and fermented foods, the SAD may be a big part of the problem when it comes to our poor digestive health. It may even cause it. Processed snack foods, fried foods, foods high in processed oils and fats, conventional dairy, in addition to overly cooked veggies (if any) are all hallmarks of the SAD diet.
One way you can begin to address and improve your overall gut health is to introduce foods rich in natural enzymes into your diet. Digestive enzymes help optimize the digestive process by breaking down the foods we eat, potentially resulting in health benefits such as faster metabolism, a healthier immune system, better nutrient absorption, and even offering anti-inflammatory benefits.
Humans create many of our own enzymes (in the pancreas, stomach, saliva, and intestines) but, for many reasons, including stress, age, and genetics, many people either inadequately produce them or begin producing less over time.
By eating more foods that contain natural digestive enzymes, you may promote gut health and get your digestive system moving in the right direction.
What are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are naturally occurring proteins that speed up chemical reactions in the body. They're found in raw, fermented, unpasteurized, and very lightly cooked (under 118º F) foods. They're also secreted from your body at various points in your digestive tract as a response to food and eating.
Interestingly, you don't have to be eating for the enzymes to start flowing in your body. The digestive process begins with your nose and your brain. The mouth-watering effect of smelling, or even just thinking about your next meal is a real physiological phenomenon.
As your body readies itself to eat, your salivary glands begin to produce amylase. It's when we stop adequately producing or consuming these enzymes that health problems related to poor digestion can start creeping up.
The main three categories of enzymes coincide with the three big macronutrients:
- Amylases — Digest carbohydrates into simple sugars
- Proteases — Digest proteins into amino acids, also called proteolytic enzymes
- Lipases — Digest lipids into fatty acids
There are a number of enzymes within each of these categories, each specializing in digesting specific types of sugars, proteins, and fats. To a degree, their names reveal which foods they help digest.
- Maltase digests malt sugars.
- Lactase digests lactose (sugar in dairy products).
- Cellulase digests cellulose (dietary fiber from the cell walls of plants).
- Sucrase digests sucrose (table sugar).
Digestive enzymes are heat-sensitive . Consider adding nutrient-dense, raw, and fermented foods in your diet to ensure that you're supplementing your own enzymes with food.
There are also digestive enzyme formulas on the market in supplement form that you can take right before a meal to help boost your enzymes, and optimize the absorption of nutrients at every meal.
Top 9 Foods with Powerful Natural Digestive Enzymes
Tropical Fruit: Pineapple and Papaya
These fruits belong in the same category because they do very similar things. Pineapple contains an enzyme called bromelain, a protein enzyme (proteolytic enzyme).
If you've ever made gelatin dessert at home, you might have noticed that the back of the box recommends adding fresh pineapple to the mix because it will prevent the jello from setting. That's the result of bromelain.
The bromelain in pineapple dissolves the gelatin (derived from animal connective tissue called collagen) that makes the jello stand up. Cooking the pineapple will neutralize the bromelain, but you won't get the same digestive benefits as you would if you stuck to the fresh stuff.
Bromelain also has anti-inflammatory, immune modulating and mucolytic effects. It can be used therapeutically for diverse conditions such as sinusitis, asthma, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, and pelvic inflammatory disease — as long as the individual is not allergic to bromelain. (Hechtman, 2018)
Papaya, which contains another proteolytic enzyme called papain, has much the same effect as pineapple. In fact, both papain and bromelain are ingredients in many store-bought meat tenderizers and will eventually break meat apart if left on for too long.
Other fruits with powerful digestive enzymes include:
- Mango (contains amylase which breaks carbohydrates into simple sugars)
- Kiwi (contains actinidin, which digests different types of protein including gluten, casein, and whey)
- Apricot (contains invertase, which breaks down sugars)
- Banana (contains maltase and amylase, which break down sugars and carbohydrates).
Avocado is technically a fruit. Yet it deserves its own category because it's high in fat and low in sugar. Have you ever wondered why avocados ripen so quickly? It's partially because of the digestive action of the lipase found in the meat of the fruit.
Another enzyme — called polyphenol oxidase — is responsible for the speed at which the flesh of the fruit turns brown once it's cut. (Kahn, 2006)
The lipase in avocados helps you digest high-fat meals (even fat from other sources beyond the avocado itself), which makes it a great ingredient to go along with high-fat foods like refried beans and tortillas made with lard.
Alliums: Garlic and Onions
Admittedly, if you're already suffering from upper digestive issues, eating raw garlic and onions could likely exacerbate the problem. But for prevention and maintenance, eating lightly cooked or raw alliums could help move your metabolism right along.
The active enzyme in alliums is called alliinase. When alliums are chopped up or crushed and then left for 10 minutes, allicin forms. Allicin is what gives garlic, onions, chives, scallions, leeks, etc., their pungent, sulphuric aroma.
Allicin is famous for its antioxidant and cardiovascular health benefits, which is why you see garlic pills on the shelves of so many health food stores these days. The heat allicin creates lodges into the meat of alliums after they've been cut or crushed. If you let them sit for ten minutes and then lightly cook them, you'll still get the benefits of allicin.
Allicin also has potent antimicrobial effects, and so has a key place in SIBO and colonic dysbiosis treatment protocols. If fresh/raw garlic is not tolerated, it is available in a standardized extract called Allimax.
Bee Pollen and Raw Honey
Bee pollen and raw honey are both superfoods in and of themselves, abundant in vitamins and nutrients in easy-to-digest forms. Non-pasteurized honey contains diastase, invertase, amylase, and various proteolytic enzymes, while bee pollen has thousands of various enzymes. (Sakač, 2012, Sanchez, 2001, and Babacan, 2007)
Bee pollen also boasts a host of additional health benefits, including antifungal, antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anticancer immunostimulating, and local analgesics.
Fermented Soy Products: Soy Sauce, Miso, and Tempeh
Soy sauce, miso, and tempeh are all different versions of fermented soy products, all rich in a host of enzymes, including lactase, lipases, proteases, and amylases. (Enzyme, 2012)
When foods are fermented, the bacteria doing the fermenting produces enzymes in the process. It's for this reason that fermented foods are such incredibly vital components to a nutrient-dense, healthy diet. They provide both probiotics (good bacteria) and digestive enzymes, both of which help us maintain digestive health.
In addition to being rich in enzymes, fermented soy products are much healthier than their non-fermented counterparts, offering protective phytonutrients developed during the fermentation process.
Nutrients are also more bioavailable in fermented soy products. Soybeans contain an anti-nutrient called phytic acid that binds the minerals in the bean, making them more difficult to access. (Mukherjee, 2016)
Fermented Vegetables: Raw Sauerkraut and Kimchi
Both sauerkraut and kimchi are primarily made of fermented cabbage, but other veggies like carrots, radishes, and cucumbers can sneak into the mix and accomplish similar benefits.
These foods, in addition to the cultured dairy we'll discuss in the next section, are considered probiotic foods — they contain live bacteria (probiotics) that aid in digestion in the large intestine and continue producing enzymes along the way.
Sauerkraut is a supercharged probiotic food rich in lactobacillus cultures, which produce enzymes as they metabolize the cabbage leaves.
Kimchi contains similar bacteria, which product proteases, lipases, and amylases. (Park, 2014)
Cultured Dairy: Kefir and Yogurt
Kefir and yogurt are both cultured dairy products produced in two different ways. Both contain live bacteria that produce their own enzymes. (Ebner 2015)
Kefir has antitumour, anticarcinogenic, antimicrobial and immunomodulatory activity. It also promotes the growth of bifidobacteria in the colon (Hechtman, 2018).
Mushrooms contain a variety of digestive enzymes, including protease, lipase, amylase, and cellulase.
They've proven to survive the digestive process due to their endurance at a broad range of pHs in the body. Mushrooms are an underrated food group offering loads of dietary fiber and probiotics, which feed enzyme-producing probiotics as well.
Eat the Raw Rainbow
As you can see, there are a variety of raw and fermented foods that can offer a host of digestive benefits, especially in the form of enzymes. As you age, your body needs additional support in the area of natural digestive enzymes, which you can find in the many foods we've shared with you, in addition to digestive enzyme supplements.
The bottom line is to ensure diversity in your diet and avoid the pitfalls of the SAD diet by focusing on nutrient-dense foods like the ones above.