Whether your body is big, small, curvy or linear, it needs to produce enzymes to be healthy. Like some mad but brilliant scientist, enzymes insist on participating in virtually every chemical reaction in your body -- think “organized chaos.” From cell division to digestion, enzymes speed things up so that vanilla latte doesn’t spend any more time in you than absolutely necessary.
Enzymes are Proteins
All enzymes are made of protein, although they come in hundreds of different shapes and sizes. In order to make enough enzymes, your body needs to consume adequate dietary protein from meats and/or plants. Your cells use amino acids as building blocks to create enzymes, which are then secreted by glands into the bloodstream or various cavities such as your mouth, intestines or lungs. Enzymes are classified as chemical catalysts, which means they promote and speed up reactions. Without enzymes, most chemical reactions either wouldn’t happen or they would occur too slowly. As a tip to help identify the names of enzymes, they typically end with the suffix “-ase.”
Enzymes are essential for digestion and metabolism because they are responsible for breaking food down into small units that can be used by your body. For example, carbohydrates such as pasta, fruit and potatoes are reduced to glucose with the help of specialized enzymes that cleave complex sugars. These sugar enzymes are found in saliva or released into the small intestine and known as amylase, sucrase and lactase, to name a few. Different types of enzymes called proteases are secreted by the pancreas into the small intestine in response to eating protein. Proteases reduce protein into small amino acids. Some foods, especially tropical fruits such as pineapple, papaya and mango, contain their own enzymes that help your body digest and metabolize protein. Fats also require enzymes called lipases in order to be reduced into fatty acids. Lipases are secreted by the pancreas and helped by the action of bile, which is released by your gallbladder.
In addition to digestion, enzymes are known to catalyze about 4,000 other chemical reactions in your body. For example, enzymes are needed to copy genetic material before your cells divide. Enzymes are also needed to generate energy molecules called ATP, move fluid and nutrients around the insides of cells and pump waste material out of cells. Most enzymes work best at normal body temperature -- about 98 degrees Fahrenheit -- and in an alkaline environment. As such, high fevers and over-acidity reduce the effectiveness of most enzymes. Some enzymes need co-factors or co-enzymes to work properly.
Lack of Enzymes
A lack of enzymes can be caused by a poor diet or glandular disease such as pancreatic cancer. Some people naturally don’t produce enough of a certain enzyme, which is the case with lactase. Lactase is needed to break down lactose -- the main sugar in cow’s milk -- into glucose. About 70 percent of Americans experience some degree of lactose intolerance because of poor lactase production, which typically leads to bloating, flatulence and diarrhea.
- Human Metabolism: Functional Diversity and Integration; J. Ramsey Bronk
- Encyclopedia of Human Nutrition; Benjamin Caballero et al.
- Public Health Nutrition: From Principles to Practice; Mark Lawrence and Tony Worsley
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.