Enzymes are catalysts that enable molecules to be changed from one form to another. They play an important role in maintaining healthy bodies by ensuring food is both digested and processed, nutrients are absorbed efficiently, and safeguarding that our bodies are producing enough energy throughout the day.
There are three main enzyme groups in the human body: metabolic enzymes, digestive enzymes and food enzymes. Metabolic enzymes are responsible for cell growth, repair and maintenance. They work together with other enzymes in the body to convert energy and they fuel the body by breaking down large nutrient molecules (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) into smaller molecules. Digestive enzymes are complex proteins that break down food into smaller building blocks to facilitate absorption. The pancreas produces most of the body’s digestive enzymes, but smaller amounts are made in the mouth, stomach and small intestine.
Examples of digestive enzymes include:
• Amylase – converts complex sugars like starches and glycogens into simple sugars
• Lipase – breaks down fats into smaller fatty acids and glycerol
• Pepsin – breaks down proteins in foods like meat, eggs and dairy products into polypeptides
• Lactase – breaks down lactose, or sugar in milk into glucose and galactose
• Cholecystokinin – a hormone secreted in the small intestine that stimulates the release of bile into the intestine and the secretion of enzymes by the pancreas
• Trypsin – breaks down protein so that it can be made into amino acids
Metabolic enzymes and digestive enzymes are produced inside the body, while food enzymes come from food that is consumed. They are found in raw fruits and vegetables grown in nutrient-rich soils, which many consumers are not eating enough of. When food enzymes are present, coenzymes are too. Coenzymes are the minerals and vitamins in the food we eat, which are not destroyed when food is cooked, unlike food enzymes (1). This explains why we can still obtain the important minerals and vitamins of certain foods like tomatoes, carrots and eggplant, after cooking them, but should be wary of cooking other foods like kale and broccoli if we want to preserve specific food enzymes needed to assist in the digestive process (2).
Enzyme deficiency can occur if the body is not digesting food properly. Sometimes even with our best efforts to eat the necessary raw foods, the body does not make enough digestive enzymes, slowing down digestion. For example, a lack of production of the lactase enzyme will make it hard for the body to properly break down sugar in dairy products, causing undigested lactose to go into the colon— leading to bacteria producing more gas and resulting in bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea (3). A common symptom of undigested food in the small intestine due to enzyme deficiency is irritable bowel syndrome, also known as IBS (4). Other symptoms of enzyme trouble can include food cravings, weight gain, bloating, heartburn, dull/thinning hair, lackluster skin, cracked nails, fatigue, sleep problems, mood swings, headaches or migraines, and rashes (5). Many health conditions like cystic fibrosis, chronic pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer can also lead to low levels of digestive enzymes (3).
Thankfully, supplements can provide the necessary enzymes to support healthy digestion, alleviating the various symptoms of indigestion, and reducing the risk for disease and excess weight (5). Once the body begins to digest food properly, and obtains the nutrients it lacked, the body can feel satisfied with less food and have more energy. Enzyme supplements come in capsules and chewable tablets. They are made from the pancreas of a pig, cow or lamb, or from plant sources such as fruit, molds, yeasts and fungi. Bromelain, for example, is an enzyme extract derived from the stems of pineapples. There is also papain, obtained from papayas, and lactase, taken from purified yeasts or fungi (3).
For prime digestion and nutritional benefits, it is recommended to take plant-based digestive enzymes no more than 10 minutes before each meal or with your first bite (5). When reading labels, it is important to note that unlike other supplement labels, enzyme supplements don’t measure quantities by weight or international units, but by the potency of each enzyme. Each enzyme is described by DU or HUT to describe the lab tests used to measure potency (5).
Measurements are helpful for comparing products, but a simpler way of reading the labels is to look at which enzymes are included in a product and aim for a comprehensive blend. For example, a product containing 10 enzymes gives shoppers a good mix of necessary enzymes. The number of active units can be used to compare potency in different formulas. It is also important for consumers to follow usage directions once they have selected a supplement.
Once shoppers have familiarized themselves with enzyme names, they may notice that multivitamins and probiotic formulas also incorporate enzymes and wonder if enzyme combination products are a better option than taking separate supplements. There is debate on whether enzyme stability and degradation are an issue in these combination formulas. For example, one argument against probiotic-enzyme combination formulas is that because probiotics are made up of proteins, carbohydrates and fats—the very compounds enzymes break down—taking them simultaneously may run the risk of destroying the probiotics (6). Others argue that probiotics are natural companions to enzymes and work to help the body digest food and improve gastrointestinal conditions. Enzymes can also work with multivitamins to promote a healthy immune system (6).
The effects of enzyme deficiency are common in many people, and poor digestion due to low enzyme levels might be the cause of numerous ailments for North Americans. It is important for consumers to be aware of the enzymes they need to be supplementing, either by being more conscious of the amount of raw plants they eat, or by taking enzyme supplement blends. WF
1. Consumer Health Digest, “Metabolic Enzymes: What They Are & What They Do?” https://www.consumerhealthdigest.com/health-conditions/metabolic-enzymes.html
2. Wei, Marlynn, “Raw or Cooked? How Best to Prep 11 Fruits and Vegetables,” https://www.huffingtonpost.com/marlynn-wei-md-jd/raw-or-cooked-how-best-to_b_8238636.html
3. Harvard Health Publishing, “Gut reaction: A limited role for digestive enzyme supplements,” https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/gut-reaction-a-limited-role-for-digestive-enzyme-supplements
4. Healthline, “Can Digestive Enzyme Supplements Treat IBS?” https://www.healthline.com/health/digestive-health/digestive-enzymes-for-ibs
5. Tweed, Vera, “Top 10 Digestive Enzymes,”https://www.betternutrition.com/features-dept/enzyematichealth
6. Chiarello-Ebner, Kaylynn, “It’s Time for Enzymes to Shine: A look at why supplemental enzymes are so important for healthy digestion,” https://wholefoodsmagazine.com/supplements/features-supplements/its-time-enzymes-shine-look-why-supplemental-enzymes-are-so-important-healthy/