What do laundry detergent, automobile exhaust systems and saliva have in common? All three contain catalysts or substances that speed up a chemical reaction while remaining unchanged. In cars, this is useful for reducing the toxicity of emissions, but detergents and saliva contain a different type of catalyst—the enzyme. An enzyme is simply a protein, produced by any living organism, that functions as a catalyst (1). Taken as a supplement, enzymes can benefit digestion, immune function, inflammation and more.

How Do Enzymes Work?
For most chemical reactions that release energy, a certain amount of energy must first be input for the reaction to proceed. This is called the activation energy. Think of a lighter—before you can get fire, you need that initial spark. Sometimes, though, you can spark a lighter and it doesn’t light. This could be due to a variety of conditions, including wind, wetness or the size of the spark. As a solution, a catalyst for our lighter would reduce the amount of spark needed to produce fire, and so it would allow the lighter to light in varying conditions.

Enzymes work the same way in your body. When you introduce enzymes into your body via raw foods or supplementation, the reactions that occur every second are able to proceed much faster and under less-than-perfect circumstances (2).

Why Take Enzymes?
Enzyme supplements are most widely used for their positive role in digestion. Your body naturally produces a certain amount of enzymes that are present in every phase of digestion—without them, you can’t adequately digest what you eat (1). Indigestion, heartburn, acid reflux, gas, bloating and cravings may all be caused by enzyme deficiencies that don’t enable the body to properly breakdown foods (3).

Natural products stores offer a variety of enzyme supplements that can help, including those with proteases, which digest protein; lipases, which decompose fat; and amylases, which break down carbohydrates (1). Taken before a meal, such supplements can help maintain proper digestion and help break down most foods. Many supplements are available as a combination of several different enzymes for best results. However, there are many more enzymes in the digestive system that are each responsible for specific facets of the human digestion; you are encouraged to speak with a dietician for a tailored supplementation program.

Beyond Digestion
Enzyme supplement benefits aren’t just limited to the stomach and related organs. They also influence many other types of reactions in your body. When you get injured, the intricate network of capillaries that provides vital fluids to your muscles gets damaged; this minor internal bleeding is what causes inflammation, swelling and pain (3). Taking proteolytic enzyme supplements after injury helps your body get rid of dead and damaged cells and greatly reduces recovery time, up to one-half or even one-third as long (1)!

One study, conducted by J.M. Zuschlag, M.D., found that preemptive enzyme treatment before playing sports also benefits athletes. Among a group of 20 karate fighters, the 10 that had been taking enzymes prior to injury experienced, on average, inflammation for only 3.83 days in contrast to the 10.56 days experienced by the control group and only 4.18 days of being unfit for training as opposed to 10.23 days (1). There also have been numerous other studies that demonstrate the same results.

Other research supports the use of enzymes for inflammation reduction among arthritics (papain and bromelain), breaking down mucous in the sinus (mucolase) and neurological conditions such as autism.

Where Can I Find Enzymes?
Besides supplements, enzymes can be found in every single fruit and vegetable (1). Take heed though—if you want an enzyme-rich diet, you need to eat raw foods, not foods that have been canned or otherwise processed. The high temperatures used in modern food-processing techniques kill or “denature” enzymes, rendering them useless. Papayas, pineapples, tomatoes, oranges and most sprouts are all well known for their high enzymatic activities.

Eating raw foods is always great, but you would have to eat quite a bit of fruit to get an equivalent amount of enzymes as there are in supplements! You’ll want to look for products with multiple strains, no fillers and high potencies (3).

Another factor to consider in enzyme supplements is the source. You can choose from those that are animal-based or plant-based (including fungal-based). Plant-based supplements are said to be more effective in the stomach, while animal-based ones work better in the small intestine (4). Animal enzymes usually have a bigger breadth of enzyme (a combination of proteases, amylases and lipases) while plant enzymes are generally more specific (4). Be sure to speak with a nutritionist to see which enzyme supplement is right for you. WF

1. A.J. Cichoke, Enzymes and Enzyme Therapy (Keats Publishing, Chicago, IL, 2000).
2. M.J. Farabee, Reactions and Enzymes, updated June 6, 2007, www.estrellamountain.edu/faculty/farabee/biobk/BioBookEnzym.html, accessed April 2009.
3. T. Bohager, Enzymes: What the Experts Know (One World Press, Prescott, AZ, 2006).
4. K. Defalice, Digestion and Enzymes, updated August 25, 2005, www.enzymestuff.com/digestion.htm, accessed April 2009.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, June 2009