Food Triggers and Enzymes

In a review of intolerances and sensitivities in 2010, the rising tide of food, chemical and environmental sensitivity was referred to as a new ‘pandemic’ – a syndrome that leads to an increase in all-cause mortality in populations. It is the case that toxic exposure, infections, or periods of intense stress will cascade into a sequence of events that render individuals increasingly sensitive to triggers throughout their lifetime, the burden of which eventually manifests as another health condition, seemingly unrelated to sensitivity[i]. The only method currently for tackling this, is lifelong avoidance.

The food intolerance cascade

At the beginning of the food intolerance cascade, clients will experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as irritable bowel, alternating bouts of constipation and diarrhea, excessive wind, bloating, gas and/or heartburn.

At the more developed end of the food intolerance cascade, there will be low grade, chronic inflammation of the gut which leads to leaky gut. This is associated with autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, arthritis, allergies, acne, obesity, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, acne and mental illness.

Trigger foods, elimination diets and enzymes

Digestive symptoms are initially met with a restrictive or elimination diet, followed by long term avoidance of the trigger(s). Several dietary interventions may remove some, or all known food triggers. or high FODMAP foods. Intestinal candida, small intestinal bacteria, the microbiome and toxicity are likely to be addressed. During the elimination and avoidance phases, the client will frequently report significant alleviation of their symptoms.

Challenges most often arise during the reintroduction phase. Clients may relapse completely and experience new or stronger reactions to the foods that originally caused the problems. Lifelong avoidance tends to follow and with that, a significant reduction in life satisfaction and an increased risk of mood disorder.

This persistent, unremitting food intolerance reaction is most likely due to a lack of enzymes.

Almost all intolerance reactions, pre, during and post-elimination will benefit significantly from enzyme therapy.

The relationship between enzymes and food triggers

Food molecules that remain too large to be absorbed via the small intestine will generate an intolerance reaction, inflammation will result and begin to create an ideal environment for pathogens to grow.

Enzymes are needed to break molecules down. Once this happens, food molecules will not generate a reaction, unless there is immune system involvement, such as allergy or a digestive autoimmune condition e.g. coeliac disease.

Lactose for example, is broken down by the enzyme lactase. Other enzymes break down intolerance molecules such as those found in FODMAP foods, histamine, phenols and gluten. When blended, enzyme combinations can result in a more thorough breakdown of molecules.  Vegan and vegetarian enzymes are more potent and faster acting than their animal derived equivalents.

When we supplement with enzymes, we are using them to restore the natural functioning of our digestive system and break foods down into their absorbable form.

How do enzymes work?

Enzymes break down foods into molecules, small enough to pass the intestinal barrier and to allow absorption.

Most practitioners will recommend food for its nutritional value. An avocado is viewed as a healthy source of magnesium, potassium, Vitamins C, E and K.  To the body, those nutrients are only made available, if the digestive system is able to break down the avocado and absorb the nutrients within.

 To see foods as the body does, think of the movie The Matrix, the idea that all of reality is lines of code.  To the body, all that we eat is lines of code – a series of molecules, bound together in chains and structures. It is only via the breakdown of those structures that amino acids, energy, lipids, nutrients and waste can be released, absorbed or eliminated. Molecules that are not completely broken down, go on to generate an intolerance reaction. When a client says ‘I‘m intolerant to avocado’, what they are unknowingly expressing is ‘I do not have the digestive enzymes necessary for breaking down and absorbing avocado’. 


What we see when we look at an avocado       


   What the body sees when we look at an avocado (conceptual).


Food can trigger a reaction due to:

  1. Missing enzymes

If the body lacks the precise enzyme(s) required for the food in question.

Digestive enzymes such as lactase for lactose break down is produced in most humans at birth. Lactase production stops at weaning for 80% of the population, leading to ‘lactose intolerance’. Along with lactase, some individuals will not produce the enzymes to break down other components of foods, such as gluten phenols or because of genetics. Chitin, for example, is a molecule found in the skeletal content of crustaceans such as prawns. Chitinase is a digestive enzyme that breaks chitin down. It has been observed in the digestive systems of fish-eating populations such as Cambodians and Vietnamese but is absent in Western diets where crustaceans form only a small amount of the total diet.

The human digestive system evolved over millions of years from a diet of naturally occurring, seasonally produced, whole foods – and those foods are perfectly suited to its natural workings. Modern foods, heavily processed, microwaved, chemically laden and novel foods have no corresponding digestive enzymes. Processed foods, chemicals and pesticides not only denature and interfere with the body’s natural enzyme production – they also disrupt what is naturally occurring.

  1. Suboptimal enzymes

Where enzyme production is negatively affected by poor quality stomach acid, stress, sickness, inflammation, infection, medication and diet – all factors that affect intestinal transit and lifestyle.

How enzymes facilitate absorption











Enzymes, mineral and nutrient absorption


A well-designed nutritional intervention will view foods for their nutritional value. Salmon for example, is not only seen as a complete protein, but also as a healthy source of omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin B12, B6, B3, D2, D3, selenium and potassium. For the salmon to effectively deliver its nutrient content, the digestive system, using stomach acid, digestive enzymes and bile acids must be able to breakdown the salmon into molecules small enough to pass through the intestinal lining.

Mineral absorption

Calcium and Iron are examples of two critical minerals that rely heavily on the low pH of stomach acid to become ionised and absorbable. When assisting a client with low iron levels, in addition to adjusting the diet and supplementing,  we must also address their ability to effectively digest and absorb iron from foods. How is the potency of their stomach acid?  Are there any signs that digestive enzymes are affected? For successful, long-term resolution of a nutrient or mineral deficiency, suboptimal digestion will benefit from supplemental enzymes.

Protein absorption

Digestive enzyme supplementation is a critical feature of a gut healing programme; serving   beneficial functions – they facilitate better breakdown of food molecules, prevent further irritation of the intestinal mucosa, release nutrients within foods and provide substantial digestive and systemic symptom relief for the client.

Example of an intact protein molecule:

Proteins are a chain of beneficial amino acids. A whole protein is too large to be absorbed via the small intestine and must be broken down into smaller parts.  Stomach acid will unfold the protein, allowing it to be broken down into smaller chains by pepsin, a protease enzyme.

Before entering the intestine, chewed proteins must be unfolded by hydrochloric acid, then broken down into shorter polypeptides by pepsin, a potent protease enzyme. Within the small intestine, trypsin, chymotrypsin and proteases break down polypeptides into tripeptides, dipeptides and eventually amino acids. Those amino acids can then be absorbed into the bloodstream and be utilised by the body.

Protein unfolding and breakdown


When protein unfolding is faulty or ineffective i.e. due to low stomach acid or digestive enzymes, intact proteins reach the gastrointestinal mucosa triggering an inflammatory cascade.  As well as unfolding proteins, stomach acid is bacteriostatic and activates pepsin. It kills bacteria before it can reach the small intestine. Healthy stomach acid will reduce the bacterial content of chyme from millions to thousands, protecting the small intestine from bacterial overgrowth and activating critical protein digesting enzymes.


Most dietary proteins and other molecules can be effectively broken down with enzyme supplementation and stomach acid support.  For example, gluten, a common intolerance protein, can be broken down by the enzyme dipeptidyl peptidase IV, also known as DPP-IV.


Without adequate stomach acid and digestive enzymes, the microbiome and the lining of the gut are all negatively affected. For some individuals, intact proteins will trigger immune system activation (allergy); in others, intolerance and inflammation and a change in intestinal pH.  Even mild episodes of inflammation will alter the intestinal pH.  As endogenous digestive enzymes are activated and deactivated by pH, inflammation, no matter how mild, will affect the activity of enzymes, absorption and the integrity of the intestinal barrier.


Enzyme blending – why use more than one enzyme?


To understand the value of blended enzymes, we need to know how enzymes break down chains of molecules. An amino acid chain for example, may be organised like this:




Some enzymes will break one type of bond:


A-A-A-A    B-B    C-C-A-A-A-A    B-B  C-C     A-A-A-A     B-B    C-C -A-A-A-A     B-B   C-C


Another enzyme will break a different bond:


A-A-A-A   B-B    C-C     A-A-A-A   B-B C-C      A-A–A- A    B-B    C-C   A-A-A-A   B -B   C- C


To release all beneficial molecules in protein, carbohydrate, or fat, multiple enzymes are required  – just like the human body.


Enzymes and dietary Fats


Deficiencies in Vitamins A, D, E and K are associated with poor lipid metabolism. This may  affect vision, skin, nerves (in the case of pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia), memory, gallstones, cholesterol and hormonal balance. Lipids are also needed to maintain cell membranes, reduce inflammation and protect nerve cells. When this occurs, clients may experience heartburn after meals, or have floating, oily or sticky stools.


Dietary fats are converted to lipids and fatty acids via pancreatic lipase and bile acid. If this is not functioning correctly, hormonal imbalances can occur. However, it can take a while for symptoms to develop. By the time someone notices a problem, it’s likely they have not been absorbing, or digesting lipids for a while. All of these issues revolve around this digestive enzyme called lipase.


How intolerances grow in number and strength


Have you ever experienced a burn on the skin? When skin is injured, it begins to produce inflammatory molecules such as histamine that redden, swell and heat the skin, making it sensitive to touch. Even during the healing phase, we may find the skin reacts to previously ‘safe’ substances such as soap, lemon, or moisturiser. Intestinal lining is similar. Once irritated, it becomes sensitive to molecules, reacting to previously safe foods by becoming inflamed.


Foods react in a similar way; where one single food triggers the initial inflammatory cascade (the original burn on the skin) and subsequent foods irritate the gut barrier in a secondary intolerance, i.e. in the same way that lemon juice or other innocent substance may irritate injured skin.  An intolerance test may show multiple intolerance foods, when really it is just one or two molecules which are responsible.


Apparently unrelated intolerance reactions


A client’s reporting of foods that generate symptoms may appear random and unrelated. They may list foods that appear to have no relationship to each other, such as apples, oats and cheese.

Whilst these foods may appear to be unrelated, it’s possible that they share a common molecule (such as pectin in this example), rely on the same set of digestive enzymes for breakdown, or are consumed in a routine that initiates further sensitivities. It could be that one of the foods is initiating the original episode of inflammation, resulting in a sensitised small intestine that begins to react to other molecules.

A rapid method for alleviating the strength and frequency of intolerance reactions is to   supplement with digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes will immediately begin to facilitate the breakdown of molecules and over a period of 30 days can help with many of the symptoms discussed here.

 Other intestinal considerations that affect natural digestive enzyme production

Along with enzyme insufficiency, there may be other underlying causes of intestinal inflammation or reduced stomach acid. Enzyme activity and efficiency can be affected by:

  • Food preservatives
  • Food colourings
  • pH irregularity of stomach acid
  • Pesticides and herbicides
  • The skin on raw nuts
  • Soy products
  • Toxins
  • Mould exposure
  • Motility issues
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Intestinal infections
  • Illnesses, including allergies
  • Medications
  • Nutrient or mineral deficiencies
  • Allergies

Key intolerance molecules and the enzymes that can provide support


Intolerance Food Group Supporting Enzyme
Carbohydrates Amylases
Proteins Proteases
Carbohydrates, starch Glucoamylase
Gluten DPP-IV
Fats, oils Lipases
FODMAPs Alpha Galactosidase
Pectin Pectinase
Cellulose, fibre, plant matter Cellulase
Lactose Lactase
Beta glucans Beta Glucanase
Cell walls (beans, legumes Xylanase
Maltose Invertase
Cellulose, fibre Hemicellulase

Enzyme Potency Units

The true communicator of enzyme potency, is the number of active units, rather than quantities such as milligrams or micrograms. These are the internationally recognised active units for the enzymes used in Enzyme Science


  • Alpha-Galactosidase – GALU (Galactosidase Units)
  • Amylase – DU (Dextrinizing Units)
  • Bromelain – GDU (Gelatin Digesting Units) or FCCPU
  • Catalase – Baker Units (Named after the author)
  • Cellulase – CU (Cellulase Unit)
  • Glucoamylase – AGU (Amyloglucosidase Units)
  • Hemicellulase – HCU (Hemicellulase Units)
  • Invertase – INVU (Invertase Activity Unit) or SU (Sumner Units)
  • Lactase – ALU (Acid Lactase Unit)
  • Lipase – FCCFIP (Federation Internationale Pharmceutique)
  • Maltase – DP (Degrees of Diastatic Power)
  • Nattokinase – FU (Fibrinolytic Units)
  • Pectinase – Endo-PGU (Endo-Polygalacturonase Units)
  • Phytase – FTU (Phytase Units)
  • Protease-HUT (Haemoglobin Unit on a L-Tyrosine Basis)
  • Xylanase – XU (Xylanase Units)











[i] Sensitivity-related illness: The escalating pandemic of allergy, food intolerance and chemical sensitivity – ScienceDirect