The role enzymes play in your health

Recently, a couple of mutual friends threw a party to show off the fruit "enzymes" they had made out of an assortment of berries, grapes and dragon fruit.

I must admit the grape "enzyme" was the best, especially when taken chilled. A curious reaction took place that caused a little dis-inhibition and flushing. I departed the gathering heaping compliments on the host for serving the next best thing to ice wine.

He still insisted it was "enzymes" he created.

Some prefer to make "garbage enzymes" from kitchen discards, using the brew for scrubbing floors, washing dishes and insect repellant.

Enzymes have many industrial applications, such as in food processing, manufacture of detergents, stain removers, the pharmaceutical industry, bio-fuel conversion - the list goes on.

When it comes to human health, there is much conjecture and misinterpretation over the role of enzymes. Touted to be the "life force" of living things, it has been claimed that low levels of enzymes are the root cause of chronic degenerative diseases and ill health, spawning various philosophies like consumption of raw foods, concoction of home cocktails and feeding the ever-expanding supplementation industry.

What are enzymes, really? They are specialised proteins manufactured by various parts of different cells, each with a highly specific function. The process of production and replenishment is based on instructions from the genetic blueprint coded in DNA.

We therefore make our own enzymes all the time using the right ingredients and raw materials, somewhat different from kitchen chemistry.

Sailing across the sea of confusion, enzymes would be better understood if we load them into different boats: digestive enzymes; metabolic enzymes; plant enzymes; systemic enzymes; and enzyme supplements.

Digestive enzymes

Digestive enzymes

Digestion literally starts in the brain! Thankfully, no digestive enzymes are secreted here, but thought, sight and smell can trigger a flow of saliva, preparing the oral cavity for the reception of food.

Subsequent grinding, chomping and blending of morsels with salivary enzymes (amylase) begin their deconstruction into smaller and partially digested particles.

The ball of food is swallowed and moved along the gullet by muscular contractions. Upon entry into the cavernous stomach cavity, a flurry of activities occur. Hormones are secreted and acid is produced, activating a powerful enzyme (pepsin) which breaks down proteins.

The stomach churns, allowing the acid, enzymes and food to mix well. After about an hour, the stomach starts to empty its contents into the small intestines, where the hive of activities further intensify.

Bile from the gallbladder and the enzyme-rich alkaline pancreatic juice flood the intestines. Amylase breaks down carbohydrates from complex long chain sugars (polysaccharides) to double sugars (disaccharides); protease dices the proteins into amino acids and lipase trims fats into fatty acids.

The cells lining the intestinal wall produce and release highly specialised enzymes like sucrase, seeking out sucrose and breaking it into glucose and fructose, which can then be absorbed.

Other enzymes (disaccharidases) include maltase (glucose-glucose) and lactase (glucose-galactose).

In the Asian population, there is a high incidence of lactose intolerance due to lactase deficiency, whereby milk sugar is not broken down and the affected individual experiences bloating, cramps, flatulence and diarrhoea after consuming dairy products.

Metabolic enzymes

Metabolic enzymes

Metabolism is the intriguing set of chemical processes that maintains life. Anyone who tries to gain mastery of all the possible reactions that occur within the human cell risks a challenge to their sanity as there are thousands of reactions, many tightly interwoven to meet a single objective of producing energy.

Each reaction is like a dance to music, needing two to tango. When glucose and oxygen comes together, nothing happens, but within the mitochondria in the cells, sparks literally fly, as the glucose is burned for energy with the help of firestarters like vitamins and minerals (co-factors), and enzymes, which fan the speed of burning.

Without such rate-limiting control, one would rage with fever after downing a bun!

By definition, a metabolic enzyme is a catalyst protein that controls a particular biochemical reaction. In instances of high turnover, the enzyme causing excessive build-up of uric acid from proteins results in gout.

Similarly, the increased tendency to turn bad fats into cholesterol induces inflammation of the arteries.

On the other hand, when certain enzymes are lacking, there will be a backlog of unwanted metabolites, eg lack of enzymes converting bilirubin to bile salts result in jaundice.

One of the commonest enzyme disorders is G6PD deficiency, where abnormal red blood cells self-destruct.

Disaster strikes when there is a genetically pre-determined errant enzyme not performing its duty, broiling deep trouble for many born with such "Inborn Errors Of Metabolism", with catastrophic consequences.

Plant enzymes

Plant enzymes

Plants, an inherent component of our ecosystem, are also well endowed with their own set of enzymes.

The human machine emits carbon dioxide, and plants soak it up for a specific chemical process known as photosynthesis, where light energy combines with carbon dioxide to release oxygen into the atmosphere, simultaneously creating the backbone of carbon atoms to form carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Man and animals feed on plants and each other, propagating the food chain.

As "green" as we try to be, humans have no capacity to photosynthesise.

Plant enzymes differ from human metabolic enzymes, but nevertheless do have some benefits on human digestion.

Plants and their fruits contain various enzymes in different forms and ratios.

A banana is a starchy fruit and contains mainly amylase, an enzyme that helps to break down starch into smaller units of sugars. A mango gets sweeter, juicier and more aromatic, compliments of its own enzymes. Avocado has high fat content and necessarily, has greater amounts of lipase.

These plant enzymes are mysteriously placed in specific fruits for their own ripening and subsequent breakdown.

If we chose to enclose ripe fruits in a jar over a period of time, the sugars become "ethanolised" through fermentation into one of the most enjoyed beverages since ancient times, namely alcohol.

As enzymes are destroyed through cooking at high heat, there is much written and talked about consuming food in the raw form.

Systemic enzymes

Systemic enzymes

Generally, orally taken enzymes (particularly from animal sources) do not tolerate the acidic environment in the stomach, and since they are proteins, many are themselves broken down by our own digestive enzymes.

There are a few exceptions and these have found their way into the doctor's dispensary as part of therapy for specific disease states.

Papain, an enzyme extract derived from papaya, has specific protein busting (proteolytic) action. A squeeze of raw papaya into the toughest of meats acts as a tenderiser.

In medical application, papain has been used to treat tissue swelling from trauma, surgery, inflammation, wound healing and excessive mucous production.

Bromelain, derived from pineapples, is used as a commercial tenderiser and is also touted to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Serratiopeptidase, sourced from bacteria and the gut of silkworms, possesses mucous reduction effects and is used in respiratory tract inflammation. It is also found to reduce pain in fibrocystic breast congestion.

Claims of benefits of systemic enzymes in heart disease and cancer are currently inconclusive.

Enzyme supplements

Enzyme supplements

There is certainly no doubt that enzymes are pivotal to biochemical reactions that sustain life. With ageing, poor nutrition, environmental stresses and disease states, both metabolic and digestive enzymes do get depleted.

The confusion here is that many proponents of enzyme therapy oversimplify matters, claiming that taking a particular enzyme drink or tablet would rejuvenate the enzyme's levels in the body.

Metabolic enzymes cannot be replaced by supplementation, full stop!

Good nutrition and healthy cells with proper genetic instructions ensure a constant supply of enzymes, as our body manufactures these enzymes from the necessary amino acids.

Many people after their 40s complain that they are unable to tolerate their favourite food as well as compared to their youth. With age, digestive enzymes secretion slackens, and foods that are not digested properly and absorbed remain as a substrate for bacterial fermentation.

"Indigestion" leads to bloating, burping, heartburn, abdominal cramp, constipation and flatulence, which is almost always offensive.

Since the body's digestive system is unable to cope, taking the right digestive enzyme supplement certainly provides not only relief, but restores physiological gut functions.

Most enzyme supplements contain amylase (for digestion of starch), protease (proteins), lipase (fats), lactase (dairy) and cellulase (plant fibre).

Some manufacturers add in proteolytic enzymes like papain and bromelain, which apart from aiding digestion of proteins, also seeks out inflammation.

It is amazing how the myriad of biochemical reactions in our bodies consolidate together; that the bits and pieces fall into place so perfectly on the jigsaw puzzle of life itself.

In good health, we should be thankful that all our enzymes are alive and kicking in unison.

If for some bizarre reason there is a missing link, the shattering impact of this biological earthquake is beyond comprehension.

May you have a good day making those wonderful enzymes ... err, not ethanol!

Dr C.S. Foo is a medical practitioner. For further information, e-mail The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles.