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Home > Health Information > Health Tips > Supplement Tips > What are enzymes?

What are enzymes?

Enzymes are proteins that are native to the human body and are absolutely essential to most bodily processes. In the absence of enzymes, the body would cease to function - every aspect of your physiology relies on enzymes to act as biological catalysts, making all of the myriad reactions happen that mean you can get out of bed in the morning and get on with your day. Enzymes are usually divided into three groups: digestive, metabolic and food based. Producing enzymes is energy intensive and, as you get older, the amount of enzymes in your body decreases making your body less efficient as time goes on. It is estimated that you lose around 10% of your body's enzymes every ten years and this can be a significant contributor to the aging process.

What do enzymes do?

Like all proteins, enzymes are made up of amino acids; however they are built into a particular complex structure which allows them to act as a 'lock' into which certain smaller molecules fit like 'keys' so that they can bond together or break apart. Each of the many thousands of different types of enzymes present in the body act as a differently shaped 'lock', so that only a particular molecule (or 'key') will fit into it. This lock and key model demonstrates how the enzyme holds the molecule in position so that it can be bonded to another molecule. In this way, your body is able to build body tissues such as DNA (a component of every cell in the body holding your genetic information), as well as breaking down unwanted materials and producing energy from the oxygen you breath. They are also involved in immune function and in digestion, breaking down carbohydrates, fats and proteins into simple smaller molecules so that they can be absorbed into your body via the intestines to provide you with energy. Enzymes are assisted by coenzymes - without them, enzymes would not be able to perform their specific reaction. Many co-enzymes are familiar to us by name, such as Coenzyme Q10 and many other common vitamins and minerals, and they come into the body through a normal healthy diet.

Digestive enzymes

The foods and drinks you ingest are often, on the molecular level, too complex to be absorbed into your bloodstream to be useful for your body. To break down these large proteins, carbohydrates and fats, your body's digestive enzymes set to work as soon as you begin to eat. Different specific enzymes break down these large particles into their simpler chemical forms: proteins are broken down into amino acids and carbohydrates into sugars, for example. In between a protein its amino acids lies many different stages of complexity in structure, and an enzyme exists that breaks down various aspects of these large and complicated particles.

The naming of enzymes often follows a very simple logic: proteins are broken down by proteases; fats, otherwise termed 'lipids' are broken down by the enzymes known as lipases. There are many different types of sugars, such as lactose (the sugar found naturally in milk) and maltose (found naturally in grains), which are broken down by their specific enzymes such as lactase and maltase.

Digestion begins when you begin to eat. Amylase, an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrate into long chains of sugars, is secreted in your saliva, meaning that you are breaking down food as you are chewing it even before it hits your stomach. As you swallow your food it travels to the stomach, where it is broken down further by a mixture of stomach acids and protease enzymes that are secreted from the stomach lining which work to break down the complex structure of proteins. This food, now termed a 'bolus', then passes through the many twists and turns of your small intestine, where it meets more enzymes that are secreted from the pancreas as well as from the walls of the intestine. These enzymes break down carbohydrates, fats and proteins further.

Metabolic enzymes

Your metabolism is the process of energy production in your body and involves many enzymatic processes. So this includes cardiac function, blood and lymph (immune) circulation, the hormonal system, reproductive system, as well as the regeneration of tissues and cells - in short, think of a bodily process and enzymes are sure to play a key role. Enzymes help cells to talk to each other. They also help to break down unwanted materials - toxins and foreign bacteria and viruses - in the blood. They are necessary to replicate DNA so that cells can divide and regenerate.

Most people have low enzyme levels

Enzymes don't just come from our bodies; they are also in many foods we eat. If you are in good health and consuming a varied diet that includes a variety of whole raw foods then you probably do not need to take a supplement. However, many of us rely on processed snacks and cooked meals throughout the day - convenience is a natural part of the busy modern lifestyle. Processed foods tend to lose a lot of the enzymes and other nutrients present in them, and cooking food destroys the sensitive structure of enzymes rendering them useless. So we may not be taking in as many enzymes as the body expects and this can lead to an increased burden upon the body to increase enzyme production. This can leave your other bodily functions compromised, leaving you feeling tired and compromising your immune system making you more vulnerable to illness. Similarly, if you have been ill, your body is forced to divert resources to your immune system as you are producing a vast number of immune defense cells; during this period you may experience abnormal or weak digestion as your body struggles to perform all of its functions.

Many people live with very common digestive ailments, such as bloating, indigestion, excess gas, constipation or diarrhea - not realizing that it could well be a result of inefficient digestion and a lack of certain enzymes. None of these problems need to exist if you are breaking down your food properly, however people tend to live with them because they are relatively harmless and cause only minor discomfort. However these ailments can be embarrassing and, more fundamentally, mean that your body is not getting all of the nutrients it needs. A lack of enzymes can have serious health effects, and can mean that your intestines sustain long term damage and that your immune function declines, because enzymes play roles in both of these processes.

Natural enzyme supplements for digestive AND systemic effect

Systemic enzymes are those that perform the metabolic functions within your body - this is in contrast to digestive enzymes which help you to break down and absorb food. Both of these enzyme types can be boosted with dietary supplements. Often those who are lactose intolerant or who do not produce enough in their bodies take enzymatic supplements to help to break down foods or to increase metabolic rate. Many people who feel tired or run down are not even aware that they can eliminate this problem with a simple supplement. Changes to your eating patterns can have a simple but effective change upon your energy levels: chewing your food properly gives your digestive enzymes a head start; eating less also decreases your body's burden as your body's digestion becomes less efficient the more food you eat in one sitting. And simple adjustments in the diet, by eating more raw natural foods can give a significant boost to enzyme levels as well as boosting your vitamin and mineral intake which further supports enzyme activity.

Foods such as raw honey, fruit and uncooked vegetables, as well as raw fish, meat and fresh milk can have an enormous impact on enzyme levels. Taking a high quality enzyme supplement can achieve the same thing and is often considered to be more convenient. Because good quality supplements are derived from natural sources, such as the foods mentioned here, as well as being very potent (containing vast numbers of enzymes) and being under rigorous FDA scrutiny, they are a genuinely effective way of including more enzymes in your diet. Systemic enzymes have the additional benefit of providing direct benefit to your metabolic processes by being absorbed straight into your bloodstream without being diverted to performing digestive function - this is done by taking a systemic supplement between meals, not during as is the case for a digestive supplement as well as the supplement being contained within a capsule with a special enteric coating, designed to pass through the digestive system to be absorbed straight into the bloodstream.

How enzymes can treat disease

The use of enzyme supplements is on the rise in the Western world, as the understanding increases of how maintaining healthy enzyme levels can boost various aspects of health and bodily function. Immune function is heavily reliant on enzymes, and inflammation can be prolonged as a result of ineffective numbers of enzymes. Prolonged inflammation is a risk factor, as well as a hallmark, of many serious diseases such as stroke and heart attack. Enzymes are necessary to break down blood clots to prevent thrombosis, a dangerous disease that becomes more common with increasing age. Enzyme supplementation has even been used in cancer treatment to good effect: it is thought that during cancer, the body's immune and enzymatic function is compromised such that diseased, cancerous cells evade detection. By increasing enzyme levels, the immune system receives increased support and diseased cells can be identified and broken down and destroyed quicker.


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