By Dr. Mercola
As the name implies, digestive enzymes are important for optimal digestion and nutrient absorption. But their functions and benefits do not end there. Enzymes are actually necessary for most cellular functions and biological processes.
Science has identified more than 3,000 different enzymes, yet we've likely only scratched the surface. Some believe we may have anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 enzymes in our bodies.3
Each organ has its own set of enzymes, and each enzyme has a different function. In essence, they act like specialized keys cut to fit specific locks. In this analogy, the locks are biochemical reactions.
Enzymes Do More Than Aid Digestion
Over the years, researchers have discovered enzymes for all sorts of uses, from boosting athletic endurance by optimizing digestion and nutrient uptake4 to treating cancer.
According to some researchers, enzyme preservation is an important aspect of longevity, as younger people have far higher levels than older ones.
For example, young adults have about 30 times more amylase in their saliva than 69-year-olds, and 27-year-olds have twice the amount of lipase as 77-year-olds. Chronically ill people also tend to have much lower levels of enzymes.5
In one recent animal study,6 the nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) — an enzyme involved in energy metabolism, found in broccoli, cucumbers and cabbage — helped regenerate aging cells, making them behave as younger cells and preventing certain age-related genetic changes.
As a result, the NMN-treated mice gained less weight than untreated ones (likely a result of increased energy conversion) and experienced improved eyesight. Fortunately, optimizing your enzymes is as easy as eating plenty of fresh, raw and/or fermented foods. Sprouts are a particularly excellent source of live enzymes.
Fasting has also been shown to conserve enzymes. If you do not eat, you will not produce digestive enzymes, allowing metabolic enzyme production and activity to proliferate instead.
Types of Enzymes and Their Functions
Enzymes can be broadly divided into the following categories:7
• Digestive enzymes, involved in digestion; the breaking down of foods into nutrients and elimination of waste products. Digestive enzymes are extra-cellular, meaning they're found outside your cells.
There are eight primary digestive enzymes, each designed to help break down different types of food:
✓ Protease: Digesting protein
✓ Maltase: Converting complex sugars from grains into glucose
✓ Amylase: Digesting carbohydrates
✓ Lactase: Digesting milk sugar (lactose) in dairy products
✓ Lipase: Digesting fats (If you have IBS, cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, no gallbladder or gallbladder dysfunction and/or obesity, you may benefit from higher levels of lipase.
Also beware that fluorinated water may decrease lipase and protease production)8
✓ Phytase: Helps with overall digestion, especially in producing the B vitamins
✓ Cellulase: Breaking down fiber
✓ Sucrase: Digesting most sugars
• Metabolic enzymes, involved in energy production and detoxification. Metabolic enzymes are intra-cellular, meaning inside your cells, where they help the cell carry out a variety of functions related to its reproduction and replenishment.
• Food-based enzymes, contained in raw, uncooked/unprocessed foods and/or supplements. Dietary enzyme supplements are derived either from plants or animals.
For example, enzymes can be extracted from certain fungi and bacteria, raw foods, such as the bromelain in pineapple and papain from papaya. Pancreatic enzyme supplements, such as pepsin and trypsin, are obtained from the stomach, small intestine and pancreas of animals.
People who may benefit from eating more raw foods and/or taking a food enzyme supplement include those who:
• Eat cooked, microwaved or processed foods. The more raw foods you eat, the lower the burden on your body to produce the enzymes it needs, not only for digestion, but for practically everything.
Whatever enzymes are not used up in digestion are then available to help with other important physiological processes.
• Are over the age of 30. Studies show your body's production of enzymes decreases by about 13 percent every decade. So by age 40, your enzyme production could be 25 percent lower than it was when you were a child.
By the time you're 70, you could be producing only one-third of the enzymes you need for good health.
Making matters worse, your stomach produces less hydrochloric acid as you age, and hydrochloric acid is crucial in activating your stomach's digestive enzymes.
When digestion of foods requires such a heavy demand, enzyme supplies run short and your enzyme-producing capacity can become exhausted.
• Struggle with toxicity.
• Are acutely or chronically ill, including those with digestive problems, endocrine gland imbalances, high blood sugar, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, stress-related problems, arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
Supplements containing amylase, lipase and proteases (enzymes that help break down starches, fats and proteins respectively) have been shown to benefit those with food sensitivities.9 For optimal digestion, you need all three. Other less well-known digestive enzymes include ribonuclease and deoxycyribonuclease-I, which digest nucleic acids and DNA/nuclease respectively.
Enzymes and Coenzymes Play Important Roles in Health
In 2011, I interviewed Dr. Nick Gonzalez, a prominent cancer doctor who specialized in alternative treatment methods. Gonzalez died in 2015 from what appears to have been a heart attack. Prior to his untimely death, he'd had remarkable success treating cancer patients with a three-pronged nutritional approach based on the groundbreaking work of Dr. William Kelley, a dentist who co-founded nutritional typing.
Many of these patients were diagnosed with highly lethal forms of cancer that conventional medicine cannot effectively address, including pancreatic cancer, brain cancer and leukemia. Gonzalez's program consisted of three basic components:
- Individualized diet based on nutritional (metabolic) typing
- Individualized supplement program, which includes vitamins, minerals, trace elements and pancreatic enzymes
- Detoxification, which includes coffee enemas and colon cleanses
In regard to the enzymes, he stressed the importance of taking the correct ratio of active and inactive enzymes. Interestingly, the inactive precursors are particularly active against cancer. They also have far longer shelf life, and are more stable than the active ones.
According to Gonzalez, pancreatic enzymes are not only useful as treatment for active cancer but are also one of the best preventive measures. Before his death, Gonzalez published two highly rated books, "The Trophoblast and the Origins of Cancer," and "One Man Alone: An Investigation of Nutrition, Cancer, and William Donald Kelley."
The Many Benefits of Seaprose-S
Seaprose-S (also known as protease-s) is one proteolytic, meaning systemic, enzyme with powerful health benefits.14 It's particularly effective for breaking up of mucus15 and reducing inflammation.16 Some studies also suggest it may have antibiotic properties. Its anti-inflammatory and mucus-dissolving activities have been shown to benefit conditions such as:
✓ Pleurisy (inflammation of your lung lining)
✓ Peritonitis (inflammation of your abdominal lining)
✓ Pulmonary tuberculosis
✓ Pulmonary emphysema
✓ Bronchial asthma
✓ Wound complications following vaginal birth or C-section17
✓ Venous inflammatory disease18
This enzyme is one you would take in-between meals, not with your meals, as it's not aimed at improving digestion but rather doing its work systemically. By passing unused into your digestive tract, seaprose-S can enter your bloodstream, thereby reaching all the tissues in your body.
How to Boost Your Enzyme Levels Naturally
There are four ways to naturally increase your enzyme levels:
- Increase your intake of raw, living foods
- Chew your food thoroughly
- Avoid chewing gum
The very best way to get enzymes into your body is by consuming at least 75 percent of your foods raw. For many of you, you'll have to work toward this goal gradually. While all raw foods contain enzymes, the most powerful enzyme-rich foods are those that are sprouted (seeds and legumes). Sprouting increases the enzyme content in these foods tremendously. Besides sprouts, other enzyme-rich foods include:
✓ Raw honey (the enzymes actually come from the bee's saliva)
✓ Extra virgin olive oil
✓ Raw meat and dairy
✓ Bee pollen
By eating these types of foods, you supply your body with the amino acids and the enzyme co-factors needed to boost your own natural enzyme production. Another way to lower your body's demand for enzymes is to reduce your caloric intake. Did you know the average person spends 80 percent of his available energy simply digesting food?
By reducing overall consumption, as well as introducing more living foods, you reduce your need for digestive enzymes, which allows your body to put more of its energy into producing metabolic enzymes. Which brings us to chewing: Quite apart from the esthetic pleasure of an unhurried meal, there are important physiological reasons to chew your food well.
Chewing stimulates saliva production, and the more time you spend chewing, the longer your saliva enzymes have to work in your mouth, lessening the workload of your stomach and small intestine. This is also the reason for the recommendation to avoid chewing gum. Chewing gum fools your body into believing it is digesting something, so it pumps out digestive enzymes unnecessarily.
Digestive Enzyme Supplementation
If you suffer from occasional bloating, minor abdominal discomfort and/or occasional constipation and suspect your enzyme production is low, you might want to consider a digestive enzyme supplement in addition to eating more of your foods raw.
Keep in mind that digestive enzymes should be taken WITH a meal, whereas systemic enzymes, taken for other health reasons, are taken between meals (see following section). There are hundreds of digestive enzymes on the market. Ideally, look for an enzyme formula with the following characteristics:
- It should contain a mixture of different types of enzymes, to help digest all of the different components of your diet (including lipase, protease and amylase)
- The ingredients should be high-quality, all-natural and free of allergens and additives
- The supplement should be labeled as to the enzymatic strength of each ingredient, not just its weight
- It should be made by a reputable company with rigorous quality control and testing for potency
Use of Systemic Enzymes May Improve Your Health
Besides digestive enzyme supplementation, oral enzymes can be used systemically. This requires taking enzymes on an empty stomach between meals so they can be absorbed through your gut into your bloodstream, where your cells can use them metabolically to clear away debris and accumulated metabolic buildups.
However, getting enzymes from your digestive tract into your bloodstream isn't as easy as it would seem. Enzymes are very susceptible to denaturing and must be helped to survive the highly acidic environment in your stomach. For this reason, they're often given an "enteric coating" to help them survive the journey through your digestive tract.
Systemic oral enzymes have been used to treat problems ranging from sports injuries to arthritis to heart disease and cancer, particularly in European countries. But most of the research has been published in non-English language journals.
This systemic use of enzymes is still in its infancy in the U.S. Keep in mind that in order for enzymes to be used systemically, they must be ingested on an empty stomach. Otherwise, your body will use them for digesting your food, instead of being absorbed into the blood and doing their work there.