Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions in the human body. Each cell in the body contains thousands of enzymes that play a vital role in the chemical reactions within each cell. They are essential for digestion, respiration, muscle and nerve function, and thousands of other chemical processes that are indispensable to life. [This article, “Enzymes: The Crucial Key To Maintaining Health And Wellness” was originally published in News7Health]
Scientists now believe there are approximately 75,000 enzymes in the human body, and a large number of these can be divided into three classes:
Digestive enzymes: These help the body break down larger complex molecules into smaller molecules, such as glucose, so that the body can use them as fuel.
Metabolic enzymes: These play a critical role in running the body’s normal functions.
Food enzymes: These are ingested into the body through food and start the digestion process
In addition, other enzymes are critical in the body’s cell regulation, hormone production, cell duplication, toxic waste removal, signal transduction, muscle contraction, and respiration.
Keeping the proper balance of enzymes in the body is crucial to overall wellness because too much or too little of a specific enzyme can cause health problems. Enzymes in the blood can also help healthcare providers check for injuries and diseases.
Enzymes help the body get the most out of a good diet
One of the most important functions of enzymes is in the digestive system, where they assist in the process of breaking down food nutrients into materials that can be used for energy. For example, there are enzymes in saliva, pancreas, intestines and stomach that break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates into nutrients essential for growth and cell repair. Once those materials are broken down, they are absorbed into the circulatory system so that the blood can take them where they are needed.
While there are thousands of individual enzymes in the body, each type has only one job. For example, the enzyme sucrase breaks down a sugar called sucrose. Lactase breaks down lactose, a kind of sugar found in milk products. Other common enzymes are carbohydrase, which breaks down carbohydrates into sugars; lipase, which breaks down fats into fatty acids; and protease, which breaks down protein into amino acids.
The individual function of an enzyme comes from the unique shape of its “active site,” which works only with a substance in the food called a substrate. Enzymes need the right conditions to work, such as body temperature and acidity level. If those conditions aren’t right, enzymes can change shape. Then, they no longer fit with their corresponding substrates, so they don’t work correctly. For example, an enzyme in the stomach called pepsin breaks down proteins. If the stomach doesn’t have enough acid, pepsin can’t function optimally. In the same way, changes in temperature can impact enzyme activity. That’s one reason a high fever can disrupt bodily functions.
Enzyme imbalance can cause all sorts of health problems
Keeping the proper balance of enzymes in the body and maintaining the correct conditions for them to work is a vital part of staying healthy. Many metabolic disorders can be caused by not having enough of a certain enzyme for the body’s systems to function properly. Health conditions related to enzyme imbalance include:
Crohn’s disease: This is an imbalance of the bacteria in the gut that may influence an autoimmune response of the intestinal tract. This could play a role in presentation and severity of Crohn’s disease.
Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency: EPI is a condition in which the pancreas doesn’t have enough digestive enzymes, so the body can’t break down food or absorb nutrients. Chronic pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, diabetes or cystic fibrosis can lead to EPI.
Lactose intolerance: This fairly common problem results from is a shortage of the enzyme needed to digest sugars in milk (lactose) and dairy products
Parents can also pass some enzyme-related conditions to their children through their genes. Some examples of inherited metabolic disorders include:
Fabry disease, which prevents the body from making enzymes (alpha-galactosidase A) that break down fats..
Krabbe disease (globoid cell leukodystrophy), which affects enzymes needed for the protective covering (myelin) on nerve cells.
Maple syrup urine disease, which affects enzymes needed to break down certain branch chain amino acids.
How to get and keep the right enzymes for good health
Medical researchers say the best way to ensure that a person gets the necessary combination of enzymes is by eating a balanced diet and following other healthful practices. Fruits, vegetables, and other foods have natural digestive enzymes, so eating them can improve digestion. Among the foods often recommended are:
Honey, especially the raw kind, which contains amylase and protease.
Mangoes and bananas, which have amylase that also helps the fruit to ripen.
Papaya, which contains a type of protease called papain.
Avocados, which have the digestive enzyme lipase.
Sauerkraut, which picks up digestive enzymes during the fermentation process.
To treat certain enzyme-related disorders, medical professionals often encourage people to follow generally healthful practices, such as
Don’t drink too much alcohol
Eat a low-fat diet
Take vitamin and mineral pills
When enzymes are out of balance, it may be time to seek help
People who are not suffering from chronic health conditions should usually be able to get the enzymes they need through a healthy diet. However, certain health conditions may lead to recommendations from a doctor or other healthcare provider for specific enzyme supplements to make up for deficits caused by those conditions. Patients with EPI, for example, may need to take a digestive enzyme before meals to help their bodies absorb nutrients from food.
Certain medications can also affect enzyme levels and require the addition of supplements. For example, antibiotics may kill certain bacteria needed for some enzymes to work their best. This is the reason antibiotics may cause diarrhea. To kill the bacteria causing an illness, they also wipe out healthful bacteria that aid in digestion. Statins, which are medications that lower cholesterol, can raise liver enzymes and muscle enzymes, which could increase the risk of damage to the liver or muscles.
Patients can’t know for sure if they have an enzyme problem without taking a simple blood test. Many healthcare professionals recommend calling a doctor if a patient suffers from any of these problems on a regular basis:
Bloating or gas
Low red blood counts (anemia)
Nausea and vomiting
Unexplained weight loss
More things to consider before choosing an enzyme supplement
The history of enzyme supplements sold over-the-counter goes all the way back to 1948.
These products are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, but they are not regulated as strictly as medications. Some third-party groups, such as the National Sanitation Foundation, do test some of these products and establish standards for supplements in the U.S. Basically, the NSF’s seal on a product means it does indeed contain the ingredients it claims to, has been tested for heavy metals such as mercury and lead, and has been screened to ensure it isn’t contaminated by such harmful materials as mold and bacteria.
While 20 types of over-the-counter enzymes have been in use for nearly 30 years, there are three main groups that govern how the body breaks down nutrients. And though they are naturally produced by the body, these enzymes are also available as over-the-counter supplements. They include:
Amylase. The pancreas and salivary glands produce this enzyme, which is responsible for breaking down carbohydrates and starches into sugars.
Lipase. Synthesized in the stomach and pancreas, lipase converts fats into glycerol and fatty acids.
Protease. This enzyme is produced in the pancreas and released into the body’s small intestine. It breaks proteins down into amino acids.
In supplement form, these three digestive enzymes are primarily obtained from bovine and porcine sources. These supplements can also be found in enteric-coated and non-enteric-coated versions. The first of these are designed for slow release, helping ensure the pills don’t degrade inside the stomach. Choosing a coated pill may lessen such side effects as nausea and upset stomach.
More information about enzymes and their role in human health can be found on these Websites:
Important Note: The information contained in this article is for general informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or medical advice, nor is it intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease or health condition. Before embarking on any diet or program of nutritional supplementation, it is advisable to consult your healthcare professional in order to determine its safety and probable efficacy in terms of your individual state of health.