Enzymes are an often-ignored but important pillar of optimal health, and they serve many functions in the body. In fact, “many” is an understatement, as there are tens of thousands of enzymes facilitating countless reactions in your body every second. Without these enzymes you would cease to exist immediately, and in many ways the process of aging is related to decreased enzymatic functions.
So, what are enzymes exactly and how do we maximize them in our body if they're so important?
Chemically, enzymes are complex molecules that essentially facilitate or speed up reactions in your body as catalysts. This can be in the realm of digestion, detoxification, building muscle, making neurotransmitters, transporting important chemicals or facilitating immune activities like breaking down pathogens.
Enzymes are everywhere in your body and they usually require cofactors like minerals or vitamins in order to function properly.(1) Magnesium, vitamin B6, copper, zinc, molybdenum and manganese are some of the most common cofactors that are needed to facilitate enzymatic reactions, and this is why they are part of my Everyday Basics for Optimal Health.
Because enzymes are extremely specific in their functions, there are many of them in the body. Nevertheless, they generally fall into two categories: digestive enzymes and metabolic enzymes. The main focus for us in this article will be on the digestive enzymes and their three primary types: protease, amylase and lipase.
Protease is responsible for processing proteins. Amylase is responsible for processing
carbohydrates. And lipase is responsible for processing fats. They are all predominantly produced in the pancreas, although other areas of the body produce them, as well, such as the salivary glands for amylase and the small intestine for protease and lipase. Digestive enzymes are critical to the utilization of the macronutrients you ingest and they decline with age, deficiencies, toxicity and disease.
Because enzymes are dependent on minerals and vitamins to function correctly, being
deficient in the key nutrients mentioned previously can impact a wide range of functions in your body besides digestion.
Genes also play a significant role in your inherent production of various enzymes, as well as your ability to utilize their nutrient cofactors. If you have a harder time absorbing magnesium, for example, you are likely to have a variety of problems long term because magnesium is involved in hundreds of enzymatic reactions and processes in the body.
This is why magnesium supplementation with a high quality, chelated form like this one is something everyone should consider - since magnesium is difficult to get in the diet in sufficient amounts.
These things can be solved easily with quality supplements and a complete nutrition program, but the point is that there is no perfect genetic roll of the dice. Everyone, regardless of how robust on the outside, is likely to have some enzyme issues somewhere.
Regarding the digestive enzymes, they are a key tool in your pursuit of optimal health because most of the food you will eat is cooked or processed in some way. This presents the body with a burden, and over time, the cost of this burden is that it takes valuable enzyme resources from other areas of your body just to handle daily digestion.
All of the roles that require enzymes consequently suffer, and in a nutshell, this is one reason why eating nothing but processed or cooked food your whole life will contribute to aging- it diminishes your resources for enzymatic activity. The good news is that you don’t have to switch to a raw food vegan lifestyle to get the benefits of enzymes.
Simply by supplementing high-quality digestive enzymes with your meals you will remove most of the burden. Remember that your body is a very complex, integrated system. Protease, for example, is not just one type of enzyme but an umbrella of several different types of chemicals that are used to repair protein structures in the body and heal inflammation.
In fact, supplementing with proteolytic enzymes has been thoroughly researched for its benefits on wound healing, digestive health, muscle soreness and even cancer.(2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)
This is one reason why you don’t want to overload your body with extreme amounts of protein: it leaves you vulnerable to inflammation by using up your body’s enzymes. Remember that if you aren’t digesting your food properly, the undigested particles can trigger an autoimmune situation or aggravate your immune system by fooling it into thinking invaders have arrived. How does this work? Your cells don’t have eyes; they respond to chemical signals and structures.
Casein, one of the proteins found in dairy, for example, has an identical structure to pancreatic islet cells before it is broken down into its constituent amino acid parts. If your gut is inflamed and you do not break down casein, a larger molecule of protein enters the blood than what your body is normally used to. Your immune system “sees” this as an invader and reacts, which is dangerous in the long term because it can eventually lead to your cells attacking the pancreatic islets, as they think it’s more casein invading.
This idea of undigested food as a trigger for autoimmune disease is a very important thing to keep in mind and why it is so critical to make sure you digest your food and minimize inflammation in your gut. Using the above example with casein and the pancreatic cells, the natural outcome of this attack leads to impaired pancreas function, which can create type 1 diabetes. Interestingly, several studies have confirmed the connection between casein and this autoimmune disease.(11,12,13,14)
And with a continually rising incidence of autoimmune diseases in general, it is not a far stretch of the imagination to consider that our toxic environment, low-quality food and uncontrolled inflammation (which are also rising) are at least partly to blame for the statistic. Other diseases like fibromyalgia have also been correlated to the interplay between your digestion and immune system.(15)
So, if you do suffer or are prone to autoimmune disease, healing your digestive center is of utmost importance on the road to recovery.
Now, although enzymes are easy to include in your diet by consuming raw food, remember that there are problems with eating certain types of foods raw because of anti-nutrients, pesticides, waxes and so on. Digestive enzymes can help with this, but there is no free lunch in life. Everything has a cost and its own set of considerations.
For optimal enzyme support I recommend three avenues in your routine: eating some raw foods, supplementing with digestive enzymes and supporting the body’s production of enzymes through good nutrition. As long as you are working all 3 of these avenues into your health, you will keep the burden off your body and minimize inflammation.
The first step, eating raw foods, is simple and self-explanatory. Try not to load up on fruit as fructose is not good for you and instead consider vegetables, nuts and (carefully) raw sources of protein like sushi.
The second step, supplementing with enzymes, is also straight forward. A great place to start is with a broad spectrum digestive enzyme supplement like this one. I take 1-2 of these with every big meal, along with some betaine HCL to help my stomach break down everything properly.
The third part, supporting your body’s natural enzyme production, requires maintaining your nutrient levels as high as possible and minimizing the impact of toxins and the environment. This is where your complete nutrition program along with regular health testing will come into play, and it is a constant dance between your lifestyle, genes and intake of nutrients in general.
A good place to start for creating a comprehensive nutrition program is this article.
Remember that enzymes require many cofactors, and all of us have at least a few areas
where we are naturally lacking, so targeted, high-quality supplementation is the long-term answer if you want optimal health. There are also natural substances like digestive bitters that can stimulate the body’s production of digestive enzymes and many herbs act as cholagogues- that is, they stimulate the movement and production of bile.(16)
These are herbs like turmeric, ginger, licorice and peppermint, among many others that have traditionally been used by cultures for thousands of years for a variety of benefits. If you suffer from pancreatic issues or have had your pancreas removed, there are more considerations with enzymes, and your functional medicine doctor can help you create a specific plan according to your needs. An example in this area is supplementing with TUDCA, (tauroursodeoxycholic acid, try saying that 10 times fast) - a new and natural aid for people who have had their pancreas removed and can't produce bile.
In the end, enzymes are not just fancy chemicals that do all kinds of amazing things in your body, but rather the gateway to better energy, better health and a longer life.