Enzymes are substances found in all living cells. They act as catalysts in chemical processes, such as metabolism, and are part of the breakdown and regenerative process of life. Plant foods, for example, contain enzymes which are needed to break down that specific plant. Animals also produce enzymes to break down the foods they eat. These are called digestive enzymes. Unfortunately, many of the processed foods we eat are lacking necessary enzymes. Some people may benefit from taking natural enzymes with meals to help digest food.
Papaya contains the enzyme papain, which breaks down animal proteins. It is the main ingredient in many meat tenderizers. You can also buy papain as a single supplement. According to the Clayton College of Natural Health's Herb Guide, it is used to treat indigestion and gas, and also dissolves and digests dead tissue.
Bromelain is a powerful enzyme found in pineapple. It breaks down proteins and is considered a natural anti-inflammatory. The Herb Guide also notes that it is an effective substitute for pepsin in cases of pancreatic insufficiency. It is used by herbalists and nutritionists to treat arthritis and inflammation. It is generally found in single supplement form.
Amylase is produced in the pancreas and used to break down carbohydrates. It is one of the three main digestive enzymes produced in the body. Natural dietary sources of amylase include all raw fruits and vegetables, sprouted seeds, raw nuts, whole grains, and legumes. Combination enzyme supplements generally contain, at the very least, the three main enzymes used in digestion: amylase, lipase and protease.
Lipase is also produced by the pancreas and used to break down fats. It is the second of the three main enzymes produced in the body. Again, natural dietary sources of lipase include all raw fruits and vegetables, sprouted seeds, raw nuts, whole grains, and legumes. As cooking destroys most nutrients and all enzymes, it is important to include a few raw fruits and vegetables in the diet.
Protease, as its name implies, breaks down proteins. It is the third of the three main enzymes produced in the body. It is made by the pancreas and can be found naturally in all raw fruits and vegetables, sprouted seeds, raw nuts, whole grains and legumes. To ensure you are getting adequate nutrients, including enzymes, the USDA recommends at least 3 oz. of whole grains, as well as 2 1/2 to 3 cups of fruits and 3 cups of fresh vegetables each day.
Lactase's sole function is to break down lactose, a naturally occurring sugar found in milk. This enzyme is destroyed during the pasteurization process, and as people get older, they sometimes find it difficult to digest this sugar. This is known as lactose intolerance. Those who are lactose intolerant can take supplemental lactase to help them digest dairy products. Lactase is found naturally in unpasteurized dairy products, such as milk and yogurt. These items are often available at local farmer's markets.