Driving from New York to Los Angeles takes several long days, even if you keep driving at a steady rate of speed. Hop on a jet, however, and you’ll make the transcontinental trip in less than six hours.
Enzymes are the jet engines in our bodies. They take some plodding chemical processes and add considerable zip so our bodies get the job done, and fast. Enzymes accelerate nearly every chemical reaction.
In fact, high-speed action is written into the definition of an enzyme. It’s any protein that increases the rate at which a chemical reaction occurs. Many of these chemical reactions happen in the mouth, stomach, and intestine, where enzymes immediately go to work on your morning toast and cereal and continue to assail every food that you put in your mouth all day long. Other enzymes speed up nerve impulses that make your heart pump, your head turn, and your hand pulls away from a hot stove.
At a less obvious level, enzymes help form cell structures such as the genetic code, DNA, that determines everything from your eye color and height to the number of gray hairs you’re getting—or losing. In fact, without enzymes to speed along the process, very few chemical reactions would proceed at a meaningful rate.
A lot of enzymes are needed to crack these many whips, and our bodies are home to an estimated 10,000 different ones. Each has a specific, nontransferable role. The enzyme that speeds digestion won’t do a thing to help your nerves and one that’s dedicated to forming new cell structures is useless when it comes to driving nerve impulses.
Given their many intricate roles, however, there are good reasons to respect the enzymes that we have—and also give them a helping hand from time to time. If any are missing or not doing their jobs, an appropriate enzyme supplement may be useful, says David B. Roll, Ph.D., professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Utah College of Pharmacy in Salt Lake City.
The enzymes that seem to need the most assistance are those in our intestines. These digestive enzymes break down the food we eat so it can be stored in the liver and muscles, where it is acted upon by other enzymes to produce energy. Digestive enzymes also make sure that the nutrients in our food are absorbed.
In the stomach and intestines, a variety of these digestive enzymes goes to work on carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, breaking them into pieces that can be absorbed through the lining of the small intestine. The more food that’s digested, the better, since your body relies on that energy supply.
If food is allowed to pass undigested through the small intestine into the large intestine, bacteria will prey upon it, causing bloating and other intestinal problems, says Dr. Roll.
One food that many people have trouble digesting is milk. That might seem odd, since most of us grew up thinking that we had to drink three glasses a day. But a surprising number of adults have a condition called lactose intolerance, which means that they have trouble digesting a natural sugar that’s in all milk as well as other dairy products such as ice cream.
Help for Intolerance
If you’re lactose intolerant, you’re actually short on an enzyme called lactase. Without that worker-bee enzyme in your intestines, you can’t handle the lactose that accompanies the milk on your morning cereal. You need that enzyme to break down lactose into smaller sugars that are easier to digest.
Without lactase, lactose sits around too long in your small intestine. Left undigested, it is fermented by bacteria, causing gas, cramping, and bloating.
When people discover that they’re lactose intolerant, it’s usually because they have such symptoms. Once you know what the problem is, you can usually deal with it by avoiding dairy products or taking an enzyme supplement that can ease the symptoms. Available in tablets, liquid drops, or dairy-treated milk and sold under brand names such as Lactaid, lactase enzymes take over the exact function of the missing natural lactase. The supplemental enzyme cracks the lactose sugars into smaller, more easily digestible components.
As soon as intestinal gas is mentioned, you can be sure that the conversation will quickly deteriorate to mention of the lowly bean. Surely, this is a food—if ever there was one—that needs some firm coaching in the digestive process.
The fact is that, yes, most of us do have a hard time digesting beans. Here again, an enzyme supplement can come to our aid. It’s an easy-to-take supplement that can also help with other gas producers such as broccoli, cabbage, and onions. These foods contain certain complex sugars that we cannot digest. The sugars ferment in the large intestine, causing gas and abdominal distress.
Alpha-galactosidase to the rescue. This supplement is highly effective and has been known to save many from social embarrassment. Products containing alpha-galactosidase include Beano, The Ultimate Florazyme, and Prevail Bean/Vegi Enzyme Formula.
In the small intestine, alpha-galactosidase supplements help break down the indigestible sugars found in certain foods. This benign action helps to stop gas before it starts.
Enzymes Individual names: Lactase, alpha-galactosidase, bromelain, papain, pancreatin, and other digestive enzymes.May help: Digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion; lupus; and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Who’s at risk for deficiency: The elderly, people with digestive disorders such as chronic pancreatitis, and those with cystic fibrosis.
Cautions and possible side effects: Alpha-galactosidase supplements alter the way you process sugar; if you have diabetes, check with your doctor before using them. Do not use if you have galactosemia, a rare condition that causes an adverse reaction to all foods containing the sugar galactose. Do not take if you are sensitive to mold or penicillin; these supplements are often made from a type of mold.
The supplements come as drops or tablets, and dosage instructions are right on the bottle. If you get the drops, however, don’t add them to foods during cooking, since high temperatures kill the active enzymes. Instead, add drops to your first bite of food.
Other Enzymes to Watch
While many of us don’t need enzyme supplements to aid normal digestion, the situation may change as we age. “As we get older, we don’t produce adequate amounts of some enzymes,” says Dr. Roll. “In that case, supplements may be helpful for digestion.”
Enzymes that deal with the gut-wrenching effects of lactose and beans are just two of many that can help with digestion and are available in supplement form.
Many supplements contain pancreatin, a combination of enzymes derived from the pancreas of a hog or an ox; some are made up entirely of pancreatin.
You can also find supplements made from natural enzymes that are extracted from tropical fruits—bromelain from pineapple and papain from papaya. Both help your body digest protein if you are lacking digestive enzymes. Some people who get bloating and cramps after eating high-protein foods like steak may benefit from these supplements.
Enzyme supplements designed to aid protein digestion must be enteric-coated to allow them to pass safely through the stomach and into the intestinal tract, where they perform their function, says Dr. Roll. Without the coating, the supplements would be digested in your stomach and therefore be useless.
Some enzyme supplements contain ox bile, pancreatin, or a mixture of other enzymes. These may help people whose bodies don’t produce enough enzymes to digest food properly, such as those with pancreatitis or cystic fibrosis.