Here’s a riddle for you: I can help you digest foods that are nutritionally incomplete, which helps the pancreas and immune system function to give the body more energy. Taking me with meals is a great way to help your insides function as a well-oiled machine and even control metabolism. What am I?
I’m a supplemental enzyme.
What Are Enzymes and Why Do We Need Them?
Enzymes are biologically active proteins found in all living cells. These catalysts speed up reactions in the body, and have been described as the “body’s labor force,” which keep all functions going. Enzymes are necessary for just about every chemical reaction in our bodies; without the proper enzymes, illness and even death can occur (1). There are about 1,300 different enzymes found in a human cell, and these enzymes can team up with coenzymes to form nearly 100,000 different chemicals that enable us to see, hear, feel, move, think and digest food (2).
In short, without enzymes, food would just sit in your stomach and your body would be in big trouble.
There are two types of enzymes—metabolic and digestive—and our bodies naturally produce both as needed. Metabolic enzymes are necessary components for cellular function and health, as they speed up the chemical reactions within the cells for detoxification and energy production. Every organ, tissue and each of the 100 trillion cells in our bodies depend on the reactions of metabolic enzymes and their energy factor (2).
Digestive enzymes are mostly produced by the pancreas—although the liver, gallbladder, small intestine, stomach and colon also play a role in production—and are secreted along the digestive tract to break down food into nutrients and waste. These enzymes enable the nutrients in food we consume to be absorbed into the bloodstream and the waste to be discarded (2).
Enzymes can also enter the body via the consumption of raw foods (processing and cooking a food item can destroy its enzymes). However, raw foods contain only enough enzymes to digest that food, so our bodies must produce the digestive enzymes we need, unless supplemental enzymes are used to help out the process. (2)
How Can Enzymes Support Healthy Digestion?
Supplemental enzymes are integral for helping many individuals achieve proper digestion, especially since research suggests that the body’s production of digestive enzymes decreases by about 10% per decade after you turn 20 years old (4). In addition, cooking and processing techniques induce inter- and intramolecular changes within food, and aging, along with other variables, lessens the body’s ability to digest and secrete, so it’s important to supplement (7).
Supplemental enzymes perform very specific tasks. It has been estimated that the human body contains 100 trillion cells and any one of those cells could contain 1,300 different enzymes at any given moment, so one can take supplemental enzymes at each meal without fear of “overdosing” (2).
There are several types of digestive enzymes that break down food in the mouth, stomach and small intestine. Amylases break down starches into sugar molecules, proteases break down proteins into amino acids and lipases break down fat into its component parts. Other enzymes include lactase (which break down lactose from dairy), papain (which helps break down protein), maltase and sucrose (which break down food sugars) and cellulase (which breaks down cellulose and helps digest fiber) (2).
These and other enzymes are often sold in combination to help users achieve a broad spectrum of digestive support. In addition, here are a few instances where supplemental digestive enzymes can lend a helping hand for specific conditions:
• Pancreatic insufficiency (PI): With PI, the pancreas is unable to produce or excrete regular amounts of digestive enzymes into the intestine, so enzymes are taken orally at meals so the food can be absorbed. Signs and symptoms include light-colored, foul-smelling, loose stools that often float due to malabsorbed fat (5). Enteric-coated enzymes help enzymes survive stomach acid until they can do their thing in the intestines (5).
• Lactose intolerance: As we age, the body often slows down its production of the lactase enzyme, which breaks down and absorbs milk sugar. With low levels of lactase, dairy products can’t be comfortably digested (5). For the dairy-loving lactose intolerants out there, lactase enzyme supplements are available and effective if taken at a sufficient dose with dairy products (5).
• High-fiber diets: People on high-fiber diets such as vegetarians and vegans who rely on beans and vegetables may find that supplemental enzymes help can make a difference in their diet tolerance (5). For such people, their best friend can be digestive enzymes that contain alpha-galactosidase, which helps break down fiber and reduce flatulence (5).
Supplemental Enzymes and Immune Health
Fun fact: 70% of your immune system is in your gut, and when the digestive system is working properly, it serves as a barrier to bacteria, viruses and pathogens. Stomach-secreted acid kills most of the aforementioned pathogens, but some people quash this acid with pharmaceutical antacids to deal with digestive discomfort. The use of such drugs negatively affects our ability to digest protein (an essential part of our immune cells) and permits pathogens to enter the small intestine—containing a large portion of our immune system—where they are absorbed into the bloodstream (3).
The outer layer of the small intestine contains mucus, which is produced by special cells lining the digestive tract and helps keep pathogens out of the bloodstream. Bad decisions with regards to the foods we eat and poor digestion can lead to decreased levels of this mucus lining, which, in turn, leaves us vulnerable to infection. The mucus also contains antibacterial and antiviral substances that reside in our intestinal walls, and when the lining of our intestines is compromised, so is our defence against sickness (3).
Ergo, it is nearly impossible to achieve maximum health without focusing on the health of the gut and digestion especially. One way to keep your breadbasket in tip-top shape is through the use of supplemental enzymes.
Vegetarian and Animal-Based Enzymes
Many of the enzyme supplements found in health food stores are plant-based, while others are glandular/animal-based (pancreatin, trypsin and chymotrypsin) and plant enzymes (bromelain and papain) (2).
Plant-based enzymes—not to be confused with plant enzymes—are grown on plants like soy and barley, and are sourced from certain types of fungus like aspergillus and probiotics. They contain a large number of active units and can break down more fat, protein and carbohydrates in a broader pH range than any other enzyme. Plant-based enzymes are helpful in maintaining a healthy digestive system; they’re also useful for allowing the body to produce more metabolic enzymes (2). Plant-based enzymes include several of the aforementioned enzymes like lipase and amylase.
Animal enzymes are said to be helpful in lower areas of the digestive system. The following examples show how animal enzymes can help the body:
• Pancreatin is found in the pancreas of a hog or ox and contains proteolytic enzymes, amylase and lipase. It has been studied for its anti-inflammatory qualities, and is commonly used in Germany for pancreatic health. It has been suggested that pancreatic enzymes should not be taken during pregnancy or along with blood thinners (2).
• Pepsin, a proteolytic enzyme, is usually prepared from the stomach of a pig. The principle digestive component of gastric juice, pepsin is suitable for those with an impaired ability to digest protein. The difficulty is that pepsin is only activated at a greater than normal body temperature (2).
• Much like pancreatin, chymotrypsin is a proteolytic enzyme taken from the pancreas of an ox or pig. It requires an 8.0 pH level for activation (2).
• Trypsin, another proteolytic enzyme, breaks down arginine or lysine in strictly alkaline settings. It is formed in the intestine and can be derived from the pancreas or intestine of an animal. Trypsin is often enteric coated to make it to the 8.0 pH found in the small intestine (2).
Meanwhile, plant enzymes (i.e., enzymes extracted from plants) include the following:
• Derived from pineapple stems, bromelain is a group of proteolytic and milk-clotting enzymes. A concentrate of bromelain can be used to combat inflammation. Bromelain, too, can only be activated at a greater-than-normal body temperature (2).
• Papain, a proteolytic enzyme derived from papaya, becomes active in an environment of 6.0–8.0 pH and also requires greater-than-normal body temperatures (2). It helps digestive comfort after meals.
Enzyme Supplements Tips
Helping a customer choose an enzyme supplement can be tricky. The key is to know what he or she wants out of the enzyme; as mentioned earlier, each enzyme supplement has a unique function. Once you figure out the customer’s desired effects, here are a few more tips:
• Check the potency. Potency can be difficult to assess, but usually the best products contain high active units with multiple strains in each category. Such enzyme blends do more work over a longer period of time (6).
• Suggest products with no fillers. Most high-quality encapsulated formulas don’t include fillers like talc (6).
• Recommend a company that tests the product to ensure it meets the label’s claim. Products that are blended to meet the potency on the label sometimes lose activity by the time they are encapsulated or tableted. Legitimate companies will make sure that its product does what it is advertised to do (6). WF
1. P. Nemiroff, “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Enzymes,” www.wholefoodsmagazine.com/blog/what-your-doctor-may-not-tell-you-about-enzymes-0, accessed July 25, 2013.
2. Enzymedica, “Enzymes FAQs,” www.enzymedica.com/education/enzyme-faqs.html, accessed July 25, 2013.
3. The Dr. Oz Show, www.doctoroz.com/videos/boosting-your-immunity-enzymes, accessed July 25, 2013.
4. National Enzyme Co., “Reasons Why Digestive Enzymes Can Support Healthy Digestion,” http://nationalenzyme.com/company-news/reasons-why-digestive-enzymes-can-support-healthy-digestion, accessed July 25, 2013.
5. T. Duker Freuman, “Digestive Enzymes: Help of Hype?” http://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2013/04/23/digestive-enzymes-help-or-hype, accessed July 25, 2013.
6. T. Bohager, Enzyme: What The Experts Know (One World Press, 2006).
7. “Enzyme Essentials,” www.enzymeessentials.com/HTML/digestion_ii.html, accessed July 25, 2013.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, October 2013