Get down to the guts and bolts of digestive health science and learn exactly how enzymes and probiotics work.
All biological reactions within human cells depend on enzymes—they are necessary to sustain life. They are not live organisms; they are actually proteins—long chains of amino acids held together by peptide bonds. All enzymes are proteins, but not all proteins are enzymes.
Enzymes are catalysts, which means they accelerate reactions in the body without being changed themselves in the process. Enzymes are very specific to what they catalyze. Each type of enzyme facilitates a different process in the body. They are highly efficient, as small amounts yield significant output. In fact, they may accelerate reactions by factors of a million or even more.
The human body produces many enzymes to facilitate digestion. Starting in the mouth, enzymes in the saliva begin the digestion process, and as the food we consume travels through the digestive tract, it is broken down by enzymes in the stomach, pancreas and finally the intestines. Enzymes are also naturally present in the actual food that we consume, and serve to help break down those specific foods.
The role of digestive enzymes is to break down food-derived fats, carbohydrates, and proteins into smaller substances that our bodies can use. Because enzymes are specific to what reactions they will catalyze, there are different types of enzymes that facilitate the digestion of the various components of our food.
Carbohydrases are the category of enzymes that break down carbohydrates and fibers (oligosaccharides) into simple sugars. One of the most popular carbohydrase enzymes is alpha-galactosidase. It helps digest those carbs found in beans, such as raffinose and stachyose, that commonly cause gas. Lactase is another well-known carbohydrase enzyme; it converts lactose (milk sugar) into its component sugars (glucose and galactose) supporting digestion of dairy products for those with lactose intolerance. Another interesting carbohydrase enzyme is cellulose, because the body doesn’t produce this enzyme at all; this is an enzyme that breaks down the cell wall of plants, releasing the nutrients for the body to absorb. There are several other carbohydrases that target specific types of carbohydrates to digest. A more comprehensive list can be found on this list of carbohydrase enzyme functions.
Proteases are enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids, and are also referred to as proteolytic enzymes. These enzymes are used to maximize digestion of proteins for improved nutrient uptake and reduced likelihood of the proteins causing an immune response that’s associated with certain food sensitivities. For example, gluten is a protein that many individuals have trouble tolerating. Enzymes that break down the peptide bonds of the gluten molecule minimize the digestive discomfort that can result from gluten consumption. Similarly, the whey protein found in dairy products and many sports supplement is a large protein that must be broken down in order to be absorbed and used by the body. Protease enzymes break down these large protein molecules so that the beneficial amino acids can be absorbed, and the smaller peptides will not cause digestive discomfort. There are several other proteases that target specific types of proteins to digest. A more comprehensive list can be found on this list of protease enzyme functions.
Lipases are enzymes that digest fats (lipids) into fatty acids and glycerol. Lipases break down triglycerides and improve fat utilization, supporting gall bladder function. Other types of hydrolytic enzymes provide health benefits; catalase is a potent antioxidant, and phytase helps with the absorption of minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium. For more detailed information, see this comprehensive list of enzymes and their functions.
In addition to digestion, there are enzymes that provide benefits to other body systems. These systemic enzymes break down proteins to improve body functions such as blood flow and inflammatory response. The most important thing that systemic proteolytic enzymes do is to break down excess fibrin in your circulatory system and in other connective tissue, such as your muscles. These enzymes bring nutrients and oxygen-rich blood that remove the metabolic waste produced by inflammation and excess fibrin. Nattokinase and serratiopeptidase are two such enzymes that are commonly used to support joint and heart health. The plant-based enzymes bromelain and papain are also widely used for systemic applications.
Although the body produces its own digestive enzymes, it may not be enough. Anyone with lactose intolerance is likely not producing enough of the lactase enzyme to adequately digest dairy products. Plus, enzyme production decreases with age. This is often why so many people are not able to enjoy many of the same foods that they did when they were younger. In addition, during cooking and processing, the natural enzymes present in raw foods are denatured. There are few people that adhere to a mainly raw food diet. And even in the case of a raw-food, vegan diet, the body doesn’t produce the enzyme cellulase at all. This is an enzyme that breaks down the cell wall of plants, releasing the nutrients for the body to absorb. Those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet are likely missing out on key nutrients from the plant-based foods they’re eating, and would most certainly benefit from an enzyme supplement.
It’s important to understand that the potency of enzymes is not measured in the same way as other nutritional supplements. Enzymes are not measured by weight, so the number of milligrams of a product would not describe the true potency. Low potency enzymes may weigh as much as those with high potency, and fillers may add to the weight but not the effectiveness of an enzyme supplement. The determining factor of an enzyme product’s potency is its “activity” – the effect it has on proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
“Activity units” are the most commonly used measurement to determine potency because they identify how active the enzyme is. Enzyme activity is determined by various assays (test methods) that are performed under specific conditions.
Different enzymes use different units of measurement to determine potency. The national standards (testing methodologies) for determining enzyme potency are defined in the Food Chemical Codex (FCC).