An enzyme is a type of protein found within a cell. Enzymes both create chemical reactions in the body and actually speed up the rate of a chemical reaction. Enzymes help to perform very important tasks, like building muscle, destroying toxins, and breaking down food particles during digestion.
Enzymes are required for proper digestion. Digestive enzymes are mostly produced in the pancreas, stomach, and small intestine. You can also take enzymes in pill form if you’re having certain digestive problems.
There are three main types of digestive enzymes. They’re categorized based on the reactions they help catalyze:
- Amylase breaks down starches and carbohydrates into sugars.
- Protease breaks down proteins into amino acids.
- Lipase breaks down lipids, which are fats and oils, into glycerol and fatty acids.
Enzymes are produced naturally in the body. They each perform different functions from helping with digestion and nutrient absorption, to activating muscle contractions.
Enzymes are affected by environmental factors such as your body’s pH and temperature. An enzyme’s shape is tied to its function. Heat, disease, or harsh chemical conditions can damage enzymes and change their shape. When this happens, an enzyme will quit functioning. The acidity and alkalinity changes throughout your digestive tract. As a result, a particular enzyme will be most active or effective in a specific parts of your digestive tract, and less active in others. For this reason, high-quality supplements will contain enzymes with a wide range of pH tolerance, thereby allowing the supplement to perform optimally all the way through your gastrointestinal tract.
Two of the best food sources of proteolytic (enzymes that break down protein) enzymes are papaya and pineapple. Papayas contain an enzyme called papain. Papain is found in the leaves, roots and fruit of the papaya plant. Papain is a powerful proteolytic enzyme. In fact, it has been used for thousands of years as a meat tenderizer due to its ability to break down protein.
Pineapples contain a powerful proteolytic enzyme called bromelain. Bromelain is found in the fruit, skin and juice of the pineapple plant and has been used for centuries by the indigenous people of Central and South America as a natural treatment for a number of ailments.
You can get papain and bromelain by eating raw papaya and pineapple. You can also buy these proteolytic enzymes in concentrated supplement form at your local co-op or from Vitacost, an online market that delivers directly to your door. (I use Vitacost for supplements because of their low prices.)
Other foods that provide enzymes:
- Kiwi – Several animal studies have shown that kiwi extract helps improve the breakdown and digestion of proteins, especially meats, milk, cheese, fish and eggs.
- Ginger – Studies in healthy adults and those with indigestion show that ginger helped food move faster through the stomach by promoting contractions. Animal studies have also shown that spices, including ginger, helped increase the body’s own production of digestive enzymes like amylases and lipases. Ginger is also a good treatment for nausea and vomiting.
- Avocados – Unlike other fruits, avocados are unique in that they are high in healthy fats and low in sugar. They contain the digestive enzyme lipase. This enzyme helps digest fat molecules into smaller molecules, such as fatty acids and glycerol, which are easier for the body to absorb. Lipase is also made by your pancreas, so you don’t need to get it from your diet. However, taking a lipase supplement can help ease digestion, especially after a high-fat meal.
- Sauerkraut -The fermentation process also adds digestive enzymes, which makes eating sauerkraut a great way to increase your intake of digestive enzymes. In addition to containing digestive enzymes, sauerkraut is also considered a probiotic food, as it contains healthy gut bacteria that boost your digestive health and immunity. Many studies have shown that consuming probiotics can ease digestive symptoms, such as bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea and stomach pain, in both healthy adults and those with IBS, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Make sure to eat raw or unpasteurized sauerkraut rather than cooked sauerkraut. High temperatures may deactivate its digestive enzymes.
- Kimchi – is a spicy Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables. As with sauerkraut and kefir, the fermentation process adds healthy bacteria, which provide nutrients, enzymes and other benefits. Kimchi contains bacteria of the Bacillus species, which produce proteases, lipases and amylases. These enzymes digest proteins, fats and carbs. Kimchi may be effective at lowering cholesterol and other heart disease risk factors. In a study in 100 young, healthy participants, scientists found that those who ate the most kimchi experienced the greatest reduction in total blood cholesterol.
- Honey – Make sure that you’re buying raw honey if you’re seeking its digestive health benefits. Processed honey is often heated, and high heat can destroy digestive enzymes. The following enzymes are found in raw honey:
- Amylases: Break down starch into sugars like glucose and maltose
- Diastases: Break down starch into maltose
- Invertases: Break down sucrose, a type of sugar, into glucose and fructose
- Proteases: Break down proteins into amino acids
- Kefir – is a fermented milk beverage. It’s made by adding kefir “grains” to milk. These “grains” are actually cultures of yeast, lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria. During fermentation, bacteria digest the natural sugars in milk and convert them into organic acids and carbon dioxide. This process creates conditions that help the bacteria grow but also adds nutrients, enzymes and other beneficial compounds. Kefir contains many digestive enzymes, including lipase, proteases and lactase. Lactase aids the digestion of lactose, a sugar in milk that is often poorly digested. A study found that kefir improved lactose digestion in people with lactose intolerance.
Both foods and supplements containing proteolytic enzymes can aid protein digestion. Studies indicate that when people with indigestion took a supplement containing proteolytic enzymes, they experienced a significant improvement in bloating, abdominal pain, belching, heartburn and loss of appetite.
Enzyme supplements are available in many forms and can contain both plant and animal-derived enzymes. Look for brands that list the potency of their enzymes in activity units on the label. Enzyme supplements are available in capsules, gel caps, chewables, powders and tablets. Common activity labeling units for enzymes include HUT, USP and SAP.
When buying an enzyme supplement look for those that are:
- Blends of enzymes rather than single enzymes
- Enzymes that work across a wide range of pH levels
- FCC measurements rather than just weight, as this guarantees potency (higher FCC units indicating higher enzyme activity)
Enzymes are generally considered safe but can cause side effects in some people.
It’s possible you may experience digestive issues like diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, especially if you take very high doses. Although supplements are more likely to cause side effects, consuming large amounts of fruits high in proteolytic enzymes can also cause digestive upset.
Allergic reactions can also occur. For example, people who have an allergy to pineapple may also be allergic to bromelain, and ingesting it can cause adverse reactions like skin rash.
Proteolytic enzymes like bromelain and papain may interfere with blood thinning medications like warfarin. Papain can also increase blood concentrations of certain antibiotics. Avoid enzymatic foods and supplements if you are on prescription blood thinners such as Coumadin, Heparin or Plavix. Avoid if:
- You are having surgery within two weeks (as they can increase surgical bleeding)
- You have a stomach ulcer
- You are pregnant or lactating
- You are taking antibiotics
If you’re currently taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug for pain and want to add a systemic enzyme, be sure to take them at least one hour apart from each other.
Next week I will discuss how to use enzymes systemically.
Papaya contains an enzyme called papain, which can break down the tough protein chains found in muscle meat. Because of this, people have used papaya to tenderize meat for thousands of years.
If the papaya is ripe, it can be eaten raw. Especially during pregnancy, unripe papaya should be cooked before consuming. The unripe fruit is high in latex, which can stimulate contractions.
Papayas are shaped similar to pears and can be up to 20 inches long. The skin is green when unripe and orange when ripe and the flesh is yellow, orange or red. The fruit also has many black seeds, which are edible but bitter.
One small papaya contains:
- Calories: 59
- Carbohydrates: 15 grams
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Protein: 1 gram
- Vitamin C: 157% of the RDI
- Vitamin A: 33% of the RDI
- Folate (vitamin B9): 14% of the RDI
- Potassium: 11% of the RDI
- Trace amounts of calcium, magnesium and vitamins B1, B3, B5, E and K.
Papayas also contain healthy antioxidants known as carotenoids, particularly one type called lycopene. Your body absorbs these antioxidants better from papayas than other fruits and vegetables. Research suggests that the lycopene in papaya can reduce your cancer risk. It may also be beneficial for people who are being treated for cancer. Papaya may work by reducing free radicals that contribute to cancer.
Among 14 fruits and vegetables with known antioxidant properties, only papaya demonstrated anticancer activity in breast cancer cells. In a small study in older adults with inflammation and precancerous stomach conditions, a fermented papaya preparation reduced oxidative damage.
Studies show that fruits high in lycopene and vitamin C may help prevent heart disease. The antioxidants in papaya may protect your heart and enhance the protective effects of “good” HDL cholesterol. In one study, people who took a fermented papaya supplement for 14 weeks had less inflammation and a better ratio of “bad” LDL to “good” HDL than people given a placebo.
People in the tropics consider papaya to be a remedy for constipation and other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). In one study, people who took a papaya-based formula for 40 days had significant improvement in constipation and bloating. The seeds, leaves and roots have also been shown to treat ulcers in animals and humans
Papaya is an excellent food option for diabetics as it has a low-sugar content even though it is sweet to taste.
Papaya is rich in Vitamin A which helps protect your vision from degenerating.
Papaya can also help your skin look more toned and youthful. Excessive free radical activity is believed to be responsible for much of the wrinkling, sagging and other skin damage that occurs with age. Again, it is the vitamin C and lycopene in papaya that protect your skin and may help reduce signs of aging. In one study, supplementing with lycopene for 10-12 weeks decreased skin redness after sun exposure, which is a sign of skin injury. In another, older women who consumed a mixture of lycopene, vitamin C and other antioxidants for 14 weeks had a visible and measurable reduction in depth of facial wrinkles.
How to Buy
When buying papaya, ripeness is key.
An unripe or overly ripe papaya can taste very different from a perfectly ripe one.
When optimally ripe, papaya should be yellow to orange-red in color, although a few green spots are fine. Like an avocado, its skin should yield to gentle pressure.
How to Store
A papaya’s flavor is best when cold, so it’s a good idea to keep it refrigerated.
After washing it well, you can cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and eat it out of the rind with a spoon, like cantaloupe or melon.
How to Cook
Papaya is a versatile fruits and can be eaten at any meal:
- Breakfast: Cut it in half and fill each half with Greek yogurt, then top with a few blueberries and chopped nuts.
- Salsa: Chop papaya, tomatoes, onions and cilantro, then add lime juice and mix well.
- Smoothie: Combine the diced fruit with coconut milk and ice in a blender, then blend until smooth.
- Salad: Chop papaya and avocado into cubes, add diced cooked vegetables and dress with olive oil and vinegar.
- Dessert: Combine the chopped fruit with 2 tablespoons of chia seeds, 1 cup of almond milk and 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla. Mix well and refrigerate before eating.
- 1 small papaya
- 3 large whole carrots (peeled)
- 1 cup green cabbage (chopped into bite-size pieces)
- 2 medium plum tomatoes (halved and cut into bite-size pieces)
- 2 leaves romaine lettuce (optional // loosely chopped // for garnish/serving)
- 2 cloves garlic (peeled and chopped)
- 2 Tbsp peanuts (plus more for serving)
- 2 medium fresh or dried bird’s eye chilies or 1 serrano pepper // thinly sliced // reduce for less heat
- 1 heaping Tbsp coconut sugar
- 1/4 heaping tsp salt
- 1/4 cup lime juice (~2 small limes as original recipe is written)
- 3-4 Tbsp vegan fish sauce (see below)
Vegan Fish Sauce
- 1 ¼ cup water
- 1/4 cup dulse loosely packed
- 1/4 cup dried shiitake mushrooms
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 1 ¼ tsp chickpea miso
- 1-2 Tbsp tamari or sub coconut aminos for soy-free
Vegan Fish Sauce
To a small saucepan, add water, dulse, dried shiitake mushrooms, and sea salt. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 15-20 minutes.
Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Pour liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl, pressing on the mushrooms and dulse with a spoon to squeeze out any remaining liquid.
To the bowl, add chickpea miso and tamari. Taste test and adjust as needed, adding more sea salt for saltiness, chickpea miso for umami flavor, and/or tamari for depth of flavor.
Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 1 month and shake well before use. Or, pour into an ice cube tray, freeze, and store in a freezer-safe container for up to 2 months.
If you haven’t already, prepare vegan fish sauce and set aside.
- Prep and start preparing vegetables.
Once you’ve peeled your carrots, cut in half crosswise, and then cut those pieces in half lengthwise. Then use a mandolin with a fine-tooth blade (or julienne peeler) to carefully shred the carrots into small strips. Continue until all carrots are shredded. Add to a mixing bowl.
To prepare papaya, peel off the skin using a vegetable peeler, then halve lengthwise and scoop out seeds.
Cut into small segments and shred into small strips using your mandoline or julienne peeler. Add to mixing bowl.
Chop cabbage and tomatoes and add to mixing bowl as well. Set aside.
To prepare sauce, add garlic, peanuts, chilies, coconut sugar, and salt to a mortar or small food processor and mash or pulse until it’s a fine paste.
Transfer to a small mixing bowl and add lime juice and vegan fish sauce. Whisk to combine, then sample and adjust seasonings as needed.
Add sauce to vegetables and toss to combine. To serve, lay down romaine lettuce on serving dish, and top with papaya salad. Garnish with additional crushed peanuts and lime wedges.
Best when fresh, though leftovers keep covered in the refrigerator for 2-3 days. Papaya salad would make an excellent side dish to spring rolls and Pad Thai!