Enzymes are make or break substances when it comes to your health, but we rarely give them much thought when actually, good enzyme health isn’t a given. So...what really ARE they, anyway? The dictionary defines an enzyme as “a substance produced by a living organism which acts as a catalyst to bring about a specific biochemical reaction.” Some of those biochemical reactions are vital to us as humans--digestion, respiration, and metabolism, to name a few of them. And enzymes have varying duties in the body. They might bind molecules together to produce a new molecule or, conversely, break large molecules into smaller pieces to be more easily absorbed by the body.
Some of the enzymes in the human body and their functions include
- Lipases - a group of enzymes that help digest fats in the gut.
- Amylase - helps change starches into sugars. Amylase is found in saliva.
- Maltase - also found in saliva; breaks the sugar maltose into glucose. Maltose is found in foods such as potatoes, pasta, and beer.
- Trypsin - found in the small intestine, breaks proteins down into amino acids.
- Lactase - also found in the small intestine, breaks lactose, the sugar in milk, into glucose and galactose.
- Acetylcholinesterase - breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in nerves and muscles.
- Helicase - unravels DNA.
- DNA polymerase - synthesize DNA from deoxyribonucleotides.
- MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase)- converts 5,10 methylenetetrahydrofolate to 5-methyltetrahydrofolate (methyl folate), one of the main forms of folate in the blood circulation and an important form of folate used by the body.
Why You Should Give Enzymes Some Attention
Kind of like breathing and regulating our temperature, most people really don’t give enzymes--their presence, function, or the lack thereof--any thought until there’s a problem with them. Specifically regarding digestion, our bodies must produce the majority of the digestive enzymes we require. In theory, we could get a lot of our necessary enzymes from food, but there are two issues with that:
1) Raw food only produces enough enzymes to digest that particular food, and
2) Cooking and processing food destroys its enzymes...and we often cook or process our foods.
Besides the nature of our food and the way we consume it, there are other enzyme challenges. Some people are born with health conditions that interfere with enzyme production or function. People with Cystic Fibrosis struggle with the release of digestive enzymes in the pancreas. These enzymes help the body absorb food and important nutrients, so if the enzymes aren’t released and those foods and nutrients aren’t absorbed, it puts people with CF at risk for malnutrition and poor growth.
Other perhaps lesser-known conditions relating to enzyme function/deficiency:
Mucopolysaccharidoses (MPS): a group of inherited diseases in which a defective or missing enzyme causes complex sugar molecules to accumulate in cells.
Lysosomal Storage Disorders (LSD): a group of approximately fifty inherited disorders that occur when a missing enzyme results in the body’s inability to recycle cellular waste.
NP: Nieman-Pick Disease: Patients diagnosed with these inherited metabolic disorders lack a critical enzyme necessary to metabolize fatty substances (lipids) in the body, resulting in the accumulation of harmful quantities of lipids in the spleen, liver, lungs, bone marrow and brain.
MTHFR Variants: The Human Genome Project has helped us understand that there are 50+ variants to the genes that produce this enzyme. Most often, when you hear someone talk about MTHFR, the person is actually referring to one of the two common MTHFR gene mutations that cause this MTHFR enzyme to become imperfect and therefore much less effective. The result (in a nutshell): the body doesn’t convert and use as much folate as it needs, which can lead to a variety of health symptoms, from migraines to depression to neural tube disorders in babies.
Compensating for Enzyme Issues
Depending on which enzymes individuals have trouble with, there are varied approaches to offset the problems. Some people may be able to take enzyme supplements.
For digestion, vegetarian enzymes are the most popular enzymes found in natural food supplements. They are sourced from aspergillus and grown in a lab on plants like soy and barley. They are called vegetarian, microbial and fungal. Of all the choices, vegetarian enzymes are the most active or potent, e.g., they contain the highest active units and can break down more fat, protein and carbohydrates in the broadest pH range than any other source.
For MTHFR: Rather than taking a supplement containing the most efficient forms of MTHFR enzyme, people with problematic forms of the MTHFR variant, namely combinations (combinations because we inherit these from both parents) of AA1298 / C677T, take L-Methylfolate supplements. Since the result of these MTHFR variants is a lack of absorbable, usable folate, we skip the processes and go straight to giving your body what it’s lacking--the folate.