Every day, your entire body is powered by enzymes, tiny proteins in each cell that facilitate a myriad of chemical reactions. Even as you read this, these compounds are responsible for everything from digesting foods to making hormones to breathing, thinking, and speaking. And if your body’s lacking certain enzymes, your health will suffer.
Though there are thousands of them, enzymes can be divided into two basic categories:
Metabolic enzymes are responsible for regulating the millions of complex, biochemical reactions that keep your body functioning, including removing toxins, aiding in the production of energy, repairing damaged tissues, and helping the body absorb oxygen.
Digestive enzymes, secreted by the pancreas and other digestive organs, break down food and allow the nutrients to be transported into the bloodstream and converted to energy. When we talk about supplementing with enzymes, we’re generally referring to these digestive enzymes, rather than metabolic enzymes.
As critical as enzymes are to life, most people know very little about them. Here’s a simple guide to everything you need to know about enzymes and your health.
How Enzymes Work
The easiest way to understand the action of enzymes is to follow their path through the body. When you eat a meal, the action of chewing not only breaks down the food, but also stimulates the release of amylase, an enzyme in saliva that starts to break down carbs. As you chew, food and enzymes are thoroughly mixed; this is the first step in digestion.
When you swallow, the food moves into the esophagus, where muscle contractions called peristalsis move it into the stomach. In the stomach, muscular contractions churn the chewed-up food around, mixing it with hydrochloric acid and enzymes that start to break down proteins. This results in a liquefied substance, called chyme, and a pasty mass of food that remains to be broken down.
The remainder of the food then moves from the stomach into the small intestine, where enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver continue to work on it. The small intestine is lined with tiny, finger-like protrusions called villi that pull the nutrients out of the digested food, moving them into the bloodstream for delivery to the rest of the body. From there, the remainder of the food passes into the large intestine, where extra fluid is absorbed and the leftover solid waste is passed from the body.
Who Needs Enzymes?
The body produces both metabolic and digestive enzymes naturally, and raw foods also provide enzymes that break down food for proper absorption. But poor dietary habits and modern lifestyle factors like eating on the go, inadequate chewing, alcohol and caffeine consumption, and excessive stress can hamper the body’s production of enzymes. Low-grade inflammation in the intestines, related to food sensitivities or gluten intolerance, can cause deficiencies in digestive enzymes. Additionally, a diet made up primarily of cooked and processed foods is lacking in food enzymes, which occur naturally in raw, uncooked fruits and vegetables. And the simple fact of aging leads to decreased secretion of digestive enzymes.
Do you need enzymes? Some of the most common signs of enzyme deficiency include:
- Feeling of excessive fullness or bloating after meals
- Feeling like food just sits in your stomach after meals
- Chronic gas or heartburn
- Bites of undigested food in bowel movements
- Oily, loose, or floating stools
- Joint and myofascial pain
- Fuzzy thinking or “brain fog”
Besides the immediate discomfort, incomplete digestion can lead to more serious problems over time. It is thought that undigested food proteins make their way into the bloodstream through small holes in the intestinal lining. The body doesn’t recognize these particles, perceives them to be foreign invaders, and mounts an immune response that includes inflammation. Left unchecked, chronic inflammation can lead to autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, and asthma. Over time, inflammation is linked with heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other serious illnesses.
Digestive enzymes can come from plants, animals, or microbes. The vast majority of enzymes you’ll find are plant-based. Papain (from papaya) and bromelain (from pineapple stems) are common additions to many enzyme formulas, and help break down protein. Other plant-based enzymes—also called microbial or fungal—are derived from aspergillus, a fungus that’s grown on soy or barley in a lab setting.
You may have heard about the dangers of aspergillus, a mold that grows on peanuts and is capable of producing harmful toxins. However, enzymes grown on aspergillus are generally considered very safe, since the enzymes are separated from the aspergillus medium and then tested to ensure that no living aspergillus compounds remain.
Animal-sourced enzymes include pancreatin, trypsin, and chymotrypsin. These are also called proteolytic enzymes, and are generally used to help treat inflammation-related disorders. (Bromelain and papain are plant-based proteolytic enzymes that are also extremely helpful in treating inflammation.) Animal-source enzymes include:
Pancreatin, derived from pig or ox pancreas, contains proteolytic enzymes as well as amylase and lipase.
Pepsin, usually derived from the stomach of pigs, is the main digestive component of stomach acid.
Trypsin, derived from the intestine or pancreas of pigs or other animals, is often used to treat osteoarthritis.
Some compelling studies suggest that proteolytic enzymes can help reduce inflammation and pain, especially neck pain and pain from osteoarthritis, and post-herpetic neuralgia from shingles. Proteolytic enzymes are also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, lupus, and other autoimmune disorders, presumably by digesting protein completely, thereby preventing the release of undigested food particles into the bloodstream where they can wreak havoc with the immune system.
Serrapeptase is another proteolytic enzyme that has been shown to reduce inflammation and improve joint mobility. It is available as stand-alone supplement for pain and inflammation.
How They’re Labeled
Reading enzyme labels is a tricky business; instead of milligrams or IUs, enzymes are usually measured by potency (like CFUs in probiotics). For example, instead of reading “2 mg,” you might see a number followed by a bunch of letters.
What this means
The number simply tells you the active units of that enzyme. The numbers are followed by letters that symbolize the tests used to measure potency. Each different type of enzyme requires a different test, so you’ll find different letter combinations.
Because of the way they’re labeled and measured, it’s hard to do a side-by-side comparison of enzyme products like you would with vitamin C or fish oil formulas. The easiest way is to focus on the active units; this will give you a general idea of which formula is the most potent. And variety is the key—it's often better to choose a supplement based on the number of enzymes, rather than potencies.
Our Product Picks:
ARTHUR ANDREW MEDICAL Serrétia delivers high-potency serrapeptase, an enzyme that supports normal blood clotting and flow, normal scar tissue formation, and more.
ENZYMEDICA GlutenEase relieves symptoms associated with gluten intolerance with a combination of proteases that break down gluten and casein. Take at the start of meals.
FLORA Udo's Choice Advanced Adult Enzyme Blend features higher amounts of enzymes adults commonly lack, making it easier to digest all types of foods.
SOURCE NATURALS Daily Essential Enzymes alleviates digestive discomfort and enhances nutrient absorption with a broad-spectrum enzyme blend.
THE VITAMIN SHOPPE Bromelain 500 mg, derived from pineapple stems, helps to digest protein, quell inflammation, and promote joint health.