When Dr Ellen Cutler was five years old, her relationship with food suddenly changed. Every time she ate, she got cramps and bloated up until she looked pregnant. She developed multiple severe food sensitivities and was constantly constipated.
As a teen, “I would look at other girls my age in amazement, watching them eat whatever they wanted and still be able to wear those tight jeans,” she says. “For years I believed there was nothing I could do about my situation and there was no help in sight.”
When she entered chiropractic college in 1972, her symptoms worsened under the stress of going to school full time while working in an emergency room at night. Diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease, she was recommended drugs and surgery but refused.
Instead she tried a wide variety of alternative therapies, from colonics to fasting to weird diets to supplementation. But she just kept getting sicker, suffering from fatigue, constant colds and the misery of chronic mouth sores.
Finally, she confessed her situation to one of her instructors at school. Much to her surprise, he recommended that she try taking plant-based digestive enzymes when she ate. With nothing left to lose, she gave it a try, religiously taking enzymes at every meal.
“Two weeks later my colitis symptoms had vanished along with the fatigue, the colds, the mouth sores, the food sensitivities, everything,” says Cutler. “It was like I became a completely different person.”
At that point, her life-long study of what she terms “micro miracles” began.
Enzymes are proteins made up of amino acids and are created in many areas of the body—the stomach and small intestines, thymus gland, liver, pancreas and more. Enzymes are essential to all life processes and are responsible for speeding up chemical reactions in every cell of our bodies.
Also known as biocatalysts, they are responsible for helping maintain homeostasis (overall biochemical balance), aiding in all building processes (building muscle, for example) and breaking down a vast range of substances, including food and toxins.
The thousands of different enzymes in the body can be placed into six fundamental classes based on their function: hydrolases involved in chemical reactions with water, oxidoreductases that catalyze oxidation processes, lyases that break up chemical bonds, transferases involved in transport functions (like signaling), ligases involved in binding processes and isomerases that facilitate structural changes in different molecules.
Every enzyme in the body is responsible for one specific action, from aiding respiration to facilitating digestion, from blood coagulation to supporting nerve function and DNA replication.
All the different classes of enzymes can be slotted into three main categories: metabolic enzymes (aka systemic enzymes) that run every aspect of our bodies’ biochemical processes, digestive enzymes that digest our food, and food enzymes that can be obtained only externally from raw foods.
“The vast majority of enzymes manufactured by the body are systemic enzymes,” says Cutler. They’re responsible for maintaining our blood tissues and organs. They ensure that your heart beats regularly, your muscles contract and relax properly, and your senses, including vision and hearing, stay sharp. They remove potentially unhealthy LDL-cholesterol from your blood, produce and balance your hormones, and supply the neurotransmitters that support memory and mood.”
Systemic enzymes also support cellular growth and repair, transform carbohydrates, proteins and fats into fuel for our cells, and help eliminate waste materials from the body.
“In the best of circumstances, your body can make all of the systemic enzymes it needs,” she says. “But if the body uses up its reserves—mostly because it’s so busy manufacturing digestive enzymes—it can no longer heal or rebuild itself effectively. That’s when lots of immune issues crop up. At that point, supplementation with the proper systemic enzymes can make a big difference.”
One of the major reasons the body has to work so hard at creating digestive enzymes is because food enzymes are frequently depleted or even eliminated during cooking, pasteurization and processing. Another contributing factor to the lack of enzymes in our food is the rapid depletion of nutrients in the soils they’re grown in. The creation of endogenous digestive enzymes (made in the body) becomes vital to assist with the breakdown of food, the absorption of nutrients and their delivery throughout the body.
Unfortunately, as we age, mostly due to stress and the consumption of highly processed, fundamentally indigestible foods, our bodies lose their ability to create enough digestive and systemic enzymes.
“If the body can’t digest food properly for a long time, it just sort of gives up trying to create digestive enzymes,” says Cutler. “And when you’re not digesting your food, then food particles get into the bloodstream and into the tissues, and your immune system becomes compromised, and then you start having all these food sensitivities and reactions.
“You start sneezing and sniffling and coughing. You get hives and headaches. You get fatigued and can’t exercise. You have constant inflammation and pain. Your hair is falling out and you can’t fight infections and are always sick.”
Cutler says most alternative health professionals and even doctors end up prescribing all sorts of food supplements to help address these kinds of issues. Unfortunately, she says supplementation is pretty much a path destined to fail if you aren’t digesting food properly.
“You start taking vitamins and minerals and spending all that money on supplements, and you just end up with expensive urine and feces. Because if you can’t even digest your food, how do you expect to digest all those supplements you’re taking? But if you just start taking digestive enzymes, you can start to digest your food properly again and your immune system begins to work again, and so does enzyme production in the body.”
Cutler talks about the thousands of patients she’s assisted with enzyme therapy over the years—like a man who came to her with chronic knee inflammation and arthritis. In his sixties, he’d had one knee replacement and both hips replaced and didn’t want to go through another surgery.
After evaluating his symptoms and lifestyle, she realized he was not digesting carbohydrates. He was also eating too much protein, drinking too much alcohol and overeating in general. She put him on digestive enzymes and recommended some exercises. His pain, inflammation and food cravings rapidly reduced. Six years later, his knee is still going strong and so is he.
Food enzymes are enzymes naturally found in raw foods. While in the plant, enzymes are responsible for the ripening processes. When ingested, they participate in the digestion of our food.
Well-known food enzymes are papain in papaya, bromelain in pineapple and amylases found in mangoes. Diatase enzymes found in honey break down starches. Glucosidases found in bananas process carbs and sugars. Lipase enzymes in avocados break down fats, and so on.
Digestive enzymes created in the pancreas help us digest three major food categories: proteins, fats and carbohydrates. Proteases process protein, lipases process fats and amylases process carbohydrates.
Digestive enzymes go to work in three major areas of the body: the mouth, stomach and small intestine. Amylase enzymes in the mouth break down starches into dextrin and maltose. Hydrochloric acid in the stomach dissolves food and converts pepsinogen into the protein-busting enzyme pepsin.
In the small intestine, pancreatic enzymes like trypsin and chymotrypsin continue to break down proteins. Other enzymes continue to break down starches. Lipases take care of fats.
Systemic/metabolic enzymes work on digestive processes, but they go to work in a lot of other areas of the body as well, so they are known as systemic enzymes.
Proteolytic enzymes are systemic/metabolic enzymes best known for their immune-modulating ability. They break down proteins, including excess fibrin (protein fibers) in the blood and tissues, and help get rid of toxins and other infectious agents. They catalyze cell division and stimulate blood clotting after injury.1
Proteolytic enzymes like bromelain, chymotrypsin, nattokinase, pancreatin, papain, rutin, serrapeptase and trypsin regulate the body’s inflammatory response, reducing swelling, strengthening capillary walls, and reducing blood clots and fibrin. They break down pathogens and cellular debris that can inhibit immune system function.
Serrapeptase reduces symptoms of patients suffering from chronic breathing disorders.2 Nattokinase is highly effective for eliminating and preventing blood clots and aids people suffering from cardiovascular disease.3 Bromelain, an anti-inflammatory enzyme found in pineapple, relieves pain and is useful as an adjunct treatment for osteoarthritis.4
Enzymes have been shown to be therapeutic for a wide range of health issues, including metabolic deficiencies, eye and joint problems, cancer and heart disease.1 The enzyme granzyme A has been shown to modulate inflammation.2 The enzyme PRMT1 boosts immune function and the creation of antibodies.3 The enzyme L-asparaginase has long been used with drugs to successfully treat acute lymphoblastic leukemia.4
Enzyme deficiencies are thought to be a possible culprit behind chronic fatigue syndrome.5 A study is currently underway to determine whether supplementation with the DAO enzyme (diamine oxidase, a digestive enzyme made in the kidneys, thymus and intestines) can reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia.6
Enzyme therapy is used in the treatment of lysosomal storage diseases, rare genetic diseases that cause toxins to accumulate in the cells.7 The enzyme arginase 1 is being studied as a treatment for certain cancers as well as for diabetic retinopathy, which causes new blood vessels to form in the retina due to oxygen deficiency, obstructing vision.8 Arginase is also being studied as a treatment for cardiovascular diseases,9 and the enzyme alkaline phosphatase has been found to promote periodontal regeneration in mice.10
According to Dr Cutler, the ideal regimen is to take a really good digestive enzyme formula with every meal. (She sells her own brand.) She also recommends taking protease enzymes in between meals—at the very least take protease at night to help the body repair.
“Protease is the enzyme responsible for digesting protein,” she says, “and it contributes to general good health in many ways. It purifies the blood and breaks up molecules which can disrupt immune function, reduces edema and inflammation, and it also prevents the accumulation of excess fibrin, which can cause dangerous blood clots and fibrosis (a buildup of excess fibrin in the muscle tissues).”
Take digestive enzymes immediately before but no more than 10 minutes prior to each meal. If you have an acid-related condition such as heartburn or acid reflux, gastritis or ulcers, take one capsule with your first bite of food.
If you’ve eaten a particularly large meal, take another enzyme immediately afterward. Eating too much at once can overwhelm your body’s ability to digest the food, so adjust your dose accordingly.
For general health maintenance, Cutler recommends taking one protease capsule two or three times a day, one hour before or two hours after a meal.
For systemic use, you don’t want the enzyme to start acting on food in the intestines. Rather it should travel intact from the intestines into the bloodstream, where it can act on the blood and lymph systems.
Drink a healthy amount of fresh water with protease.
If you’ve ever wondered why you have cravings for sugar, carbs, fat and salt, or protein, here’s the answer.
“The foods we crave are the ones we’re most sensitive to because we’re not digesting them,” says Dr Cutler. “If you’re not breaking down your carbs, for example, you’re not absorbing those nutrients, so you crave them. Once you start digesting the foods you crave, you won’t crave them anymore.”
People who don’t digest fiber have trouble with raw foods, usually because they have an issue with digesting cellulose—a major structural component of the cell walls of green plants. These people often end up with irritable bowel issues that can easily be remedied by taking cellulase, an enzyme the human body doesn’t make that is created mostly by bacteria and fungi.
People who don’t digest protein tend to crave protein and sugar. They often get bloated almost immediately after they eat, and they could also eventually develop issues like gastritis, heartburn or gastrointestinal reflux disease. They are prone to appendicitis or appendix issues. Chronic constipation is also an issue.
When you have difficulty digesting fats, you end up craving fatty foods and salt. You also get bloated—like people who have trouble digesting protein, you bloat almost immediately after you eat.
In addition, you might experience:
People who don’t digest carbohydrates crave carbohydrates and sugars (breads and pastries, etc.). When you don’t digest carbs, you end up fermenting your food in your gut and thus develop symptoms related to fermentation. You also suffer from bloating a couple of hours after eating a meal rich in carbohydrates.
You may have more issues with irritable bowels, loose stools or constipation. Sometimes you might ping-pong back and forth between loose stools and constipation. You could also suffer from fatigue.
Additional symptoms might include:
According to Dr Cutler, vegetarian-sourced enzymes are best. Plus, animal-derived enzymes are more easily destroyed by stomach acid. Also make sure the capsules are vegetable-based and not made from animal gelatin.
Many enzyme products boast enteric coatings designed to make enzymes less subject to stomach acids, but Cutler says they are less effective than those without the coatings.
When looking for an effective broad-spectrum digestive enzyme, make sure there are at least 13 different enzymes in the formula. Don’t worry about how the amount of each enzyme is labeled. Most often it is in enzyme units, the measure of a particular enzyme’s catalytic activity (chemical reaction rate). Enzyme units are different for every enzyme. For example, cellulase enzymes are measured in cellulase units (CU), and protease activity is measured in hemoglobin unit tyrosine base (HUT).
“It really doesn’t matter,” says Cutler. “The units are usually equivalent. Some companies use milligrams on the label, others use units. It’s not something to be concerned about.”
She advises buying formulas with most of the following enzymes:
Amylase: Converts complex carbohydrates to simple sugars
Protease: Breaks down proteins
Glucoamylase: Breaks down long-chain starches and carbohydrates into sugars
Lipase: Breaks down fats
Cellulase: Breaks down cellulose (fiber) into beta-glucose
Alpha-galactosidase: Breaks down sugars and fats
Diastase: Breaks down starch, converting it into maltose (a sugar)
Hemicellulase: Breaks down hemicellulose, a form of cellulose from plant cell walls
Invertase: Breaks down sucrose into fructose and glucose
Beta-glucanase: Breaks down glycosidic bonds (bonds between carbohydrate molecules and other groups of molecules) that helps form fungal cells like candidiasis
Peptidase: Breaks down proteins
Phytase: Prevents bone loss and reduces osteoporosis
Monitor how you respond to both digestive and systemic enzymes for one month.
Cutler is clear that as amazing as enzymes are, they aren’t the answer to everything (although they sometimes seem to be). They work best in combination with a healthy diet, an appropriate exercise regime, reduced stress, hydration and other health measures. Sometimes physical adjustments need to be made, sensitivities cleared, problematic toxins like heavy metals removed from the body and more. But they do an amazing job improving one’s overall health and vitality.
“The beauty with enzymes is you actually feel something when you take them. You feel the difference. Your hair, skin and nails improve, your hormones come into balance, you lose weight, energy increases and the cravings disappear.
“Enzyme therapy is also antiaging,” she says. “You can age, but you don’t need to get old. You should have as much energy as you had when you were younger. For increasing longevity and antiaging, good digestion is my recommendation.”
If you don’t digest some foods well, take digestive enzymes and eat the following foods at most meals for your best chance at a healthy life.
Maureen was 57 years old and 70 pounds overweight. She came to Dr Cutler on the advice of her psychologist, who believed her addiction to certain foods, especially sweets, was somehow related to underlying food intolerances. Because of her weight, Maureen had severe hip and knee pain and worried that she would eventually need hip and/or knee replacement surgery. She had tried every available diet with no success, and she was deeply frustrated and eager for something to work for a change.
Dr Cutler ran blood and urine panels to ensure she didn’t have any underlying medical problems that might be contributing to her weight gain. Testing showed that she had liver and bowel toxicity and that she was not able to properly digest sugars and starches. Dr Cutler put her on a detoxifying systemic enzyme protocol to support liver and bowel regularity along with a digestive enzyme to help break down carbohydrates. She also recommended following the diet for carbohydrate intolerance plus taking a brisk walk three times a week.
As soon as she began taking the enzymes, along with homeopathic remedies for detoxification, Maureen started losing weight. Within seven months, she dropped the 70 extra pounds. Her hip and knee pain disappeared and her sugar cravings vanished.
Sharon, 46, had multiple sclerosis. Her most severe symptoms were migraines and fatigue, though she also experienced frequent bouts of numbness, dizziness, fainting, heart palpitations and low back pain. Her medical history included digestive problems such as occasional gas, abdominal bloating and irregular bowel movements. Working full-time was difficult for her.
Testing revealed carbohydrate intolerance along with specific sensitivities to fish, dairy products, wheat, beans, animal and vegetable fats, chocolate, coffee and certain alcoholic beverages used in food colorings. She also had liver/gallbladder toxicity and mild kidney dysfunction, which contributed to her back pain.
Based on those findings, Dr Cutler prescribed five enzyme formulas: one was designed to improve her digestive function, and another to heal her apparently leaky gut. The third enzyme protocol was to detoxify her liver, gallbladder and kidneys, and the fourth to counteract her bloating. The last enzyme she took was to enhance assimilation of calcium, magnesium and trace minerals.
Soon after she began this regimen, Sharon noticed a dramatic decline in her digestive symptoms and bloating. Her migraines and lower back pain disappeared. Her immune function improved along with the rest of her health. Today she can work full days without any problems and can eat pretty much whatever she wants.
To learn more, visit DrEllenCutler.com or read her book Micro Miracles: Discover the Healing Power of Enzymes (Rodale Books, 2005).