What Are Enzymes?

What are enzymes? Enzymes are special proteins that trigger or accelerate biochemical reactions. Enzyme activity is responsible for all the life processes of living creatures.

Enzymes are active in our bodies and in the bodies of other animals; we can also find enzymes in raw food and isolated into enzyme supplements.

There are thousands of different enzymes at work in the human body and in all living things; in other animals, plants, fungi, yeast, and bacteria.

Enzyme researcher Edward Howell called enzymes the "life element." The living body creates enzymes, and enzymes give life to the body. There is no life without enzymes!

On this page: What do enzymes do? and Enzymes in supplements.

What Do Enzymes Do?

What are enzymes accomplishing in the human body, in our food, in industry and medicine?

In the Human Body

The body produces thousands of different enzymes that carry out bodily functions. Enzymes create, transform, break down, repair, and renew all the cells and tissues that make up the body. They carry out every function, from digestion to the activities of the immune system, from the beating of the heart to the functioning of the brain:

  • The functioning of the cell, making new cells, removing old cells
  • Repairing tissues, growth
  • Breaking down food, utilizing food, removing metabolic waste, removing toxins
  • Organ functions: liver, kidney, heart, lung, brain, more
  • Endocrine system functioning, immune system functioning
  • Respiration, circulation of blood and lymph

Food is broken down in digestion by enzymes made in the digestive system. Yet, digestion is one function that in part relies on enzymes from outside the body—from enzymes in food. Eating whole and unprocessed foods (as in an enzyme diet) benefits us by giving us additional enzymes from food. It is also possible to add to the digestive enzymes with supplements.

In Food

Enzymes are also found in raw food. These enzymes are produced either (1) by the plant or animal that was the source of the food, or (2) by yeast or bacteria in the food.

An example of enzymes made by plants are some high-enzyme fruits, such as pineapples, papayas, and figs. These fruits contain high amounts of enzymes that can break down proteins. When eaten with meat, they will help digest meat; they can be made into a poultice that helps heal damaged skin; they can be consumed for other heath benefits.

In animal examples, raw milk contains enzymes made by the cow; raw honey contains enzymes made by the bee.

In traditional food production, enzymes are made by yeasts and bacteria in cultured foods. The fermenting of raw vegetables creates a healthy sauerkraut; fermenting raw milk creates yogurt; fermenting cooked soybeans makes a healthy soy sauce.

An enzyme diet is a diet emphasizing these high-enzyme foods.

In Industry

The first use of enzymes was in traditional food production, such as baking and brewing. The enzyme amylase in yeast creates bread; in malt it creates beer. The enzyme rennin, originally from calves' stomachs, makes cheese from milk.

Today, enzymes are isolated for use in medicine, industrial food processing, and other industry.

In Medicine

When things go wrong in the body—disease and dysfunction—you can be sure that the body's production and use of enzymes has malfunctioned.

  • Drug therapy works by blocking one or more enzymes
  • Nutritional therapy works by providing building blocks for enzymes
  • Enzyme therapy works by replacing or augmenting enzymes

What are enzymes used for in medicine?

Enzymes are used in medicine:

In standard therapies. One example is thrombolysis or "clot busting" treatment for heart attack or stroke caused by blood clots. Intravenously administered enzymes activate another enzyme, plasminogen, that is already in the body; plasminogen then reduces blood clotting and reduces existing blood clots.

In laboratory tests.

As enzyme therapy in Europe and Japan (see Enzymes: The Fountain of Life); available as over the counter supplements in the United States (seeThe Complete Book of Enzyme Therapy).

Enzymes In Supplements

The enzymes in supplements are some of the same enzymes found in the human body, in animals, and food.

Two general types of enzyme supplements are:

  • Digestive enzymes
  • Antioxidant enzymes

I discuss some high-quality brands of enzymes here: Best Digestive Enzymes.

Digestive Enzymes

The pancreas (as well as other parts of the digestive system) produces enzymes that break down food. Pancreatic enzymes and other digestive enzymes are available as supplements.

Digestive enzyme supplements can be used in two different ways:

  • To improve digestion (and so improve absorption of nutrients)
  • To treat pain, inflammation, immune dysfunction

A few important types of digestive enzymes are:

  • Protease, which digests proteins
  • Amylase, which digests carbohydrates
  • Lipase, which digests fats
  • Lactase, which digests the milk sugar lactose

The names of many enzymes end in "ase"; often they break down substances with names ending in "ose," so that "lactase" digests "lactose."

More information:

What are digestive enzymes?

Types of enzymes available in supplements

Antioxidant Enzymes

Antioxidant enzymes neutralize free radicals, the particles generated by toxic exposure, aging and normal metabolism. Free radicals cause cellular damage and eventually tissue damage.

Antioxidant enzymes available in foods (such as wheatgrass juice) and in supplement form include:

  • Catalase
  • Glutathione peroxidase
  • Superoxide dismutase

In Conclusion: What Are Enzymes?

What are enzymes? All together, ultimately enzymes are the life force of the body--a life force that can be increased by enzymes in food and supplements.