By Steven Lamm, MD, practicing internist, faculty member at New York University School of Medicine, and the Director of Men's Health for NYU Medical Center. DrStevenLamm.com
Though it is well known that enzymes are an essential part of a healthy digestive system it is less well known the essential role they play in supporting a healthy immune system. Before we talk about the connection they have with our immunity, let’s consider how enzymes work digestively.
Enzymes are secreted with beautifully orchestrated precision by your digestive organs to accelerate the breakdown of food (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) so your gut can extract and distribute the nutrients that are locked inside. They also assist you in absorbing these nutrients and eliminating what can’t be used. Without enzymes, food would just sit in your gut and slowly rot.
There are several enzymes with specialized roles – too many to describe here – but they fall into general categories: lipases that break down fat, amylases that handle carbohydrates, and proteases that work on proteins.
Any of us who’ve had a meal and felt bloated and full afterwards knows what it’s like to suffer from poor digestion. Let’s face it though, we live in a complex society and complex foods are a part of this society. Sadly, so much of what’s in today’s complex food is nearly indigestible or outright bad for you. In fact, even when your digestive enzymes are flowing freely and in the right amounts, they may only be able to break down and extract about 40 to 50 percent of your food’s true nutrient value. And the more refined and processed a food is, the lower your gut’s capacity to retrieve what’s there and distribute it to your body. Like that old saying so wisely points out, “You can’t spin straw into gold.” Your digestive organs and enzymes end up working overtime, especially if you regularly eat more than you should. This not only takes a toll on our digestive system but it also short-changes your immune system.
Gut Immunity. Your gut is the body’s primary contact point with the surrounding world. Everything you swallow – good and bad – arrives there first. It may surprise you to learn though that 70% of your immune system is in your gut. Let me explain.
When the digestive system is working properly it serves as a barrier to bacteria, viruses and pathogens of all kinds. For example, the naturally occurring acid secreted in your stomach kills most pathogens. Unfortunately, much of the complex foods we consume produce gastric symptoms. Instead of taking a digestive enzyme, most turn to drugs that reduce or neutralize this acid (antacids and proton pump inhibitors). Not only does the use of these drugs negatively impact our ability to digest protein, which is an essential component of our immune cells, but it also permits pathogens to pass into our small intestine where they are absorbed into the blood stream.
The small intestine contains a large portion of our immune system. The outer layer of the small intestine contains mucus, produced by special cells lining the digestive tract. Mucus serves as a barrier to prevent pathogens access to our blood stream. Poor food choices and improper digestion can lead to a decrease in this mucosal lining leaving us vulnerable to infection. This lining also houses antibacterial and antiviral substances that reside in your intestinal walls. When the lining of your intestines are compromised, your immunity is also compromised and there is a greater risk of becoming sick.
As a result of understanding the critical connection between the gut and immunity I’m fully convinced that nobody can achieve optimum health without focusing on the health of their gut. A simple approach to maintaining a healthy gut is the use of supplemental enzymes.
Good health is dependent on a healthy digestive and immune system. Taking supplemental enzymes, especially when eating foods that are highly processed, cooked improperly or difficult to digest, reduces stress to the digestive system, supports the proper uptake of nutrients and creates an ideal environment for 70% of your immune system. But there are other compelling reasons to take them.
One has to do with age. As you get older, your supply of enzymes begins dwindling. It’s like everything else in your body – your eyes, heart, and other organs all show diminished function with time. Studies suggest the same is true of your enzyme-making organs. In fact, by age 50 you may be making half the amount you did when you were younger. This means you may not be digesting and absorbing all the nutrients you need as you age, lowering your immune fighting capacity and actually hastening the aging process.
Yet another reason to take enzyme supplements is the epidemic of relative enzyme deficiencies. Enzyme deficiencies are the result of genetics, too much stress, unhealthy foods, environmental toxins, and poor lifestyle habits. Signs of a deficiency can include gas, constipation, diarrhea, skin rashes, bloating, gastric upset and lowered immune function. I recommend starting with a free online test to help pinpoint which deficiencies might be at play (Enzymedica.com/LowEnzymeTest).
Enzyme supplements are produced from plants, fungi, bacteria, and animal sources and usually come in pill form. You take them right before meals to heighten the action of your own digestive enzymes. (By the way, you can also take them therapeutically on an empty stomach so they’re absorbed into your bloodstream to boost other systems in your body including your immune system.)
Supplements are available for nearly every need: those with a full blend of enzymes to digest carbs, fats, proteins, and fiber; enzymes tailored to help you just digest fats or carbohydrates; and even those for digestion of problem substances like gluten and lactose. Some enzyme supplements have been formulated specifically to support immune function.
Tom Bohager, in his book Everything You Need to Know About Enzymes explains there are five main things to look for when choosing an enzyme supplement:
- Look for a company that specializes in enzymes
- Check the potency and look for “blended” enzymes
- Find a product with no fillers
- Find a company that tests its product to ensure it meets label claims
- Buy enzymes in capsules
If only I had discovered enzyme supplements earlier - what a difference they might have made to my after-meal comfort level and my overall health. I’m just happy I have them now.