The idea of using enzymes in clinical nutrition was originally popularized by Edward Howell, a medical doctor and researcher who, in the 1940s, first proposed that food enzymes might play as important a role in human nutrition as do vitamins and minerals.
Dr. Howell noted that the diets of wild animals consist almost exclusively of raw foods, as did the diets of humans for millions of years before the discovery of fire. He believed that the enzymatic activity of raw food is vital to the digestive process and spares the body from having to produce all the enzymes necessary to digest a meal. Cooked and processed foods force the body to rely solely on its own enzymes for digestion and divert energy away from production of metabolic enzymes. This chronic sacrifice of naturally occurring enzymes for digestion may lead to a state of poor health because of the body’s reduced capacity to produce energy, repair tissues and fight disease.
Howell speculated that supplementing cooked-food diets with digestive enzymes could prevent the depletion of endogenous enzymes. Supplemental enzymes, taken with meals, begin breaking foods down in the upper region of the stomach where food is held for approximately an hour before moving into the acidic, lower region of the stomach. This pre-digestion simulates the breakdown of raw foods in the upper gastrointestinal tract, mimicking what Howell believed to be the natural process whereby the body conserves its natural enzyme supply and thus maintains health. He noted many examples of raw food diets being commonly prescribed by doctors for a variety of ailments. Even before there was widespread knowledge of enzymes, raw food diets were commonly recommended based purely on historical observations that they improved health. Raw fruits and vegetables, raw milk and even raw butter, were used to treat disorders such as constipation, indigestion, allergies, skin problems, rheumatic illness and neurological conditions. Howell believed the health benefits of these diets derived primarily from the large quantity of enzymes people consumed.
Howell also described the use of supplemental enzymes for therapeutic purposes by his medical contemporaries. One doctor used a multi-enzyme blend to bring relief to his patients suffering from joint and connective tissue diseases. Another doctor reportedly used microbial-derived enzymes to successfully treat indigestion, abdominal gas, asthma, diet-related eczema, urticaria and a number of other conditions. These reports, while anecdotal in nature, are nevertheless thought-provoking clinical observations.