Enzymes are proteins that catalyze a chemical reaction. Each enzyme has unique chemical structure that it can speed up the reaction of certain substrates. Enzymes are involved in all body functions such as digestion, respiration, transportation and detoxification. Deficiency and malfunction of some critical enzymes can lead to serious illnesses or death.
Two types of enzymes, digestive enzymes and antioxidant enzymes are particularly important to our health. Digestive enzymes break down the food, enabling the absorption of nutrients which are required to sustain life. Antioxidant enzymes protect our body from the attack of free radicals. The latter is responsible for many degenerative diseases such as aging, cancer, heart diseases, etc.
Digestive enzymes can be further divided into 3 categories: amylase, protease and lipase. Amylases are found in saliva, pancreatic and intestinal secretions. Their function is to break down sugars (carbohydrates). Different types of amylase break down different types of sugars. For examples, lactase breaks down lactose, sucrase breaks down sucrose. Proteases are found in the stomach acid and the pancreatic and intestinal secretions; their function is to break down proteins into amino acids. Lipases, found in pancreatic and intestinal secretions, are involved in fat digestion.
The most important antioxidant enzymes in our body are superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalase. SOD is responsible for the breakdown of superoxide into hydrogen peroxide whereas catalase breaks down hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. Compared to vitamin C and E, SOD, catalase and other antioxidant enzymes are more powerful free radical scavengers and they will not turn into free radicals themselves in their action.
Both digestive enzymes and antioxidant enzymes are synthesized naturally in our body and are available in a variety of foods, such as fruits, vegetables, sprouts and fat containing foods. However, since enzymes are very sensitive to heat, most enzymes are destroyed in cooking. In addition, several studies have shown that our body’s ability to produce enzymes decreases as we age. Therefore, for those who are elderly or who are eating mostly cooked food, the consumption of enzyme supplements can either help you assimilate more nutrients from the foods or protect you from free radical damage.
If you want to purchase enzyme supplements, remember to read the label carefully. First of all, look at the source of the enzymes, are they plant-based, animal-based or extracted from microbes? For vegetarians, they should seek out enzymes extracted from plant or microbial source packed in vegetarian capsules. Secondly, is the enzyme supplement composed of single enzyme or a mixture of enzymes? Single enzyme supplement such as bromelain is often used for other purposes (anti-inflammatory). For digestive aid, it is better to consume a mixture of enzymes including amylase, protease, and lipase which work together to break down starch, protein and fat. Similarly, a mixture of antioxidant enzymes (SOD and catalase) work better than single enzyme alone. And lastly, compare the potency (and not the weight) of different enzyme products. The more active the enzyme, the more food it can digest and the higher the unit of potency.