You've shrunk!” Elizabeth Yarnell’s mother exclaimed when her daughter returned from a month-long trip overseas transformed from a size 8 to a size 2. Yarnell was almost as surprised as her mom. She hadn’t made the slightest change to her diet or exercise habits. The only thing she had done differently was start taking a digestive enzyme supplement—one capsule with each meal, two if the meal contained dairy. “But the weight loss was only a bonus,” says the 40-year-old author of whole-foods cookbooks like Glorious One-Pot Meals (Broadway, 2009). “The enzyme supplement stopped the cramps, bloating, and gas I used to get after meals and I feel more energetic and happier. I’ve even managed to avoid the illnesses brought home by my two preschoolers and schoolteacher husband.” Yarnell, who has multiple sclerosis, says that digestive enzymes are an important part of the healthy diet that helps her manage her disease. “My mother started taking enzymes after she saw what was happening to me, and other people in my life are giving it a try, too,” she says.
ENZYMES ARE COMPLEX PROTEIN molecules found in every cell of our bodies that facilitate specific tasks like producing energy, rebuilding cells, breaking down fats and nutrients, or exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. Digestive enzymes—produced by the body and also found in raw fruits and veggies like pineapples, papaya, and sprouts—are responsible for helping to break down food, says Eric Braverman, M.D., founder of PATH Medical in New York City and author of Younger You (McGraw-Hill, 2006). From the moment you smell a delicious meal, your body jumps into action, secreting enzymes (amylase, which breaks down carbohydrates and starch) into your saliva. As food moves through your body, different enzymes (protease, which helps digest proteins, lipase, which breaks down fat, and amylase) continue the work of digesting and preparing the food to become nutrition for your body. Maltase and sucrase, which break down food sugars; cellulase, which breaks down cellulose, and lactase, which helps digest dairy products, also lend a hand. By breaking down the food we eat into small enough bits, the enzymes allow nutrients to pass through the intestines and into the blood, where other enzymes take the nutrients and use them to build muscles, bones, and blood as well as take care of other essential body functions, like respiration. But certain conditions, like lactose intolerance, have been linked to a deficiency in specific enzymes. And experts believe that our modern diet—heavy on cooked and processed foods and stimulants like caffeine and sugar—make it difficult for our digestive enzymes to do the job they’re made for. Walk into a health food store and you’ll see an array of enzyme supplements claiming to cure conditions from acid reflux to acne. We’ve rounded up three must-have supplements that can help keep you fit and energized.
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