The Wonderful World of Enzymes

All life is essentially a series of chemical reactions. If we look inside the individual cells that make up our bodies, we see that all the work a cell does, from growing to repairing, fighting infection, detoxifying, creating energy, and so on, is done through chemical reactions, collectively referred to as metabolism. But these reactions don’t just happen by chance. If left up to chance, the processes essential for life might not ever happen, and certainly wouldn’t occur as quickly as they are needed. Instead, all life depends on enzymes working as catalysts for the many varied reactions that go on in the body every second of every day. For this reason, enzymes are often called the “spark of life”.

Many people understand that the process of digestion relies on enzymes. In the digestive tract enzymes are responsible for the chemical breakdown of the foods we eat into their most basic units. It is enzymes that allow us to access the individual nutrients (e.g., amino acids) so they can be absorbed and used by the body. Some of the enzymes responsible for digestion are made by the pancreas and work in the small intestine. These pancreatic enzymes help to break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Many other cells of the digestive system also produce and secrete digestive enzymes to break down food and aid in the process of digestion. If the integrity of the intestinal lining has been compromised, the ability to produce digestive enzymes may also be compromised.

Outside of digestion, enzymes facilitate all the biochemical reactions that occur elsewhere in the body. Every single cell of the body is dependent on enzymes, and they work throughout the body in the tissues and bloodstream. These enzymes are produced by the pancreas and other cells of the body.

The body produces thousands of different enzymes that work on different substrates. Sometimes the body doesn’t make enough of some enzymes, or we want to enhance the function of those it is producing. In these cases, we can use enzymes supplementally.

Using and Choosing Supplemental Enzymes

Metabolic vs. Digestive

The first step in choosing an enzyme is to determine what you want to use the enzyme for: as a digestive aid or for aiding in metabolic processes.

  • Digestive Enzymes aid in the chemical breakdown of food. There are many digestive enzyme products available, which contain a mixture of enzymes to aid in the digestion of a variety of foods. There are also enzymes to help aid in the digestion of specific, often hard to digest, food components, like lactose or gluten. Since digestive enzymes do their work by coming in contact with food, they should be taken with the food we’d like their help digesting.
  • Metabolic Enzymes can aid in many different metabolic processes. Some of the better-known uses include the modulation of inflammation, breaking down the protective barrier some pathogenic bacteria use to protect themselves (a.k.a., the biofilm), and breaking down the protein that binds blood clots. Enzymes for aiding in metabolic processes should be taken on an empty stomach (two hours after a meal or one hour before), so their activity is not spent on digestion.   


Supplemental enzymes can be obtained from several different sources. All offer benefits, but some experimentation is often helpful to find out which type works best for your body.

  • Animal-sourced enzymes are just that, enzymes sourced from the pancreas or other glands of an animal, usually a cow or pig. Animal-sourced pancreatic enzymes work in the pH of our small intestines, just as our own pancreatic enzymes do. These types of enzymes have been studied for their therapeutic benefits since the late nineteenth century.
  • Non-animal-sourced enzymes can be derived from plants, fungi, or bacteria. Aspergillus is a fungus that enzymes are commonly harvested from since it can produce different types of enzymes simply by manipulating its food, strain, or environment. These enzymes tend to work in a broader pH range than animal-sourced enzymes, which allows them to be active throughout more of the digestive tract. They are also generally the most potent supplemental enzymes. And of course, these enzymes are appropriate for vegetarians and vegans.
  • Food-based enzymes come directly from food. All raw food contains the enzymes that would be necessary to breakdown that particular food. Most do not offer any additional enzymes; the exceptions are pineapple and papaya, which contain the proteolytic enzymes bromelain and papain, respectively. The enzymes raw food does contain are deactivated if the food is cooked.


Enzymes are usually measured by activity units or the capability of the enzyme, meaning how much of a specific component that enzyme can break down or how many reactions it can facilitate. For example, in the case of the enzyme bromelain, potency is measured by determining how many units of gelatin a certain amount of bromelain can break down. This is indicated by the abbreviation GDUs or Gelatin Digesting Units. Although this system is an accurate way to know the strength of a given enzyme, it can also be somewhat confusing since different enzymes rely on different units of measurement

Types of Supplemental Enzymes

We know of about 5,000 different enzymes produced by the human body, and there are probably many more yet to be discovered. Enzymes are categorized by the type of reaction they initiate and can be spotted by looking for the suffix “-ase”. The root word that precedes the “ase” is generally the category that particular enzyme works on.


Digestive enzyme that breaks down starches into glucose which can be absorbed and used for energy.


The main enzyme that breaks down the lipids (aka fats) we eat into smaller molecules that can then be absorbed. Lipase also allows the body to access the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.

Protease/Proteolytic Enzymes

As the main protein digesting enzyme, protease helps break the proteins we eat into their individual amino acid building blocks so they can be absorbed. Proteolytic enzymes are also one of the body’s tools for cleaning up proteins that are dead, dying, or that don’t belong. One such example is the debris associated with inflammation, such as dead white blood cells, damaged tissues, excess fluid, and excess fibrin (the protein that causes blood to clot). They also help to modulate cytokine production. Cytokines are cell-communication molecules involved in the inflammatory process. To support metabolic processes proteolytic blends are taken on an empty stomach; to support protein digestion, protease enzymes are taken with food.


A mixture of enzymes produced by the pancreas that has protein-, fat- and carbohydrate-digesting capabilities. Supplemental pancreatin is animal derived and closely matches the composition of the enzymes produced by our own pancreas. Other enzymes produced by the pancreas are trypsin, chymotrypsin, and pepsin (all proteases). Even though they aid in digestion, the protein-digesting pancreatic enzymes are also used for metabolic purposes.


The cell walls of plant foods like grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits are made of a fibrous complex of which cellulose is a main component. Cellulase is a family of enzymes that breaks down this fibrous wall, making higher fiber foods easier to digest. Although humans don’t produce cellulase, supplementing with it can help reduce the gas and bloating sometimes associated with eating high fiber foods. Types of cellulase include alpha galactosidase and hemicellulose.


Only about 40% of the adult population worldwide is able to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down the lactose in dairy. The ability to produce lactase beyond childhood is largely determined by genetics. When someone lacks the ability to produce the enzyme lactase, we say they are “lactose intolerant”, because without lactase their bodies can’t break down lactose.

DPP-IV (dipeptidyl peptidase IV)

This enzyme breaks down proteins that are high in the amino acid proline. Gluten (one of the proteins in wheat, spelt, rye, etc.) and casein (one of the proteins in dairy) are both high in proline, which has launched this enzyme into the spotlight for gluten- and casein-sensitive individuals. DPP-IV is by no means a magic pill and does not offer protection for the unrestrained eating of gluten or dairy in an allergic or sensitive individual. Instead, it may help to lessen the blow of accidental ingestion or cross-contamination and is probably best used whenever there is uncertainty, such as when eating out, or soon after accidental exposure.


This enzyme is found in fresh pineapple and is a type of protease, meaning it breaks down protein. Bromelain can be taken with meals as a digestive enzyme, but it is also often used to modulate inflammation throughout the body. For this purpose, it should be taken on an empty stomach.


Also a protease enzyme, papain naturally occurs in fresh papaya. It works similarly to bromelain and can be used instead of or in conjunction with it.


This enzyme was originally isolated from the Japanese fermented soybean paste Natto. A fibrinolytic enzyme, nattokinase breaks down fibrin, the mesh-like protein that traps red blood cells and forms the basis of a blood clot. Nattokinase modulates red blood cell aggregation, helping to keep the blood flowing smoothly. It also appears to support healthy blood pressure by modulating the activity of an enzyme that causes blood pressure to increase.

Serrapeptidase (a.k.a. serratiopeptidase or serapeptase)

Serrapeptidase is an enzyme naturally produced by the silkworm. For supplemental purposes it is grown by a bacterium in a lab and then harvested. Serrapeptidase is a potent proteolytic enzyme that when taken on an empty stomach helps to modulate inflammation and support healing throughout the body.

DAO (diamine oxidase)

DAO is the primary enzyme for breaking down histamine in the digestive tract. Some individuals are deficient in DAO which can lead to a buildup of histamine and the expression of symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, constipation, dizziness, headaches, and heart palpitations. A DAO deficiency has been associated with migraines; dermatological symptoms such as eczema, chronic hives, and atopic dermatitis; and inflammatory bowel diseases. Although research into supplemental DAO has only just begun, it looks promising so far. DAO is derived from pig kidney.

Ox Bile

The liver produces bile which is then stored in the gallbladder until it is released into the intestines where it emulsifies fats. By breaking fats down into smaller droplets, the surface area is increased, giving the fat-digesting enzymes (lipases) more access to fats so they can be broken down more completely. The benefits of bile don’t stop with the digestion of fats though, bile also encourages colonic motility and supports detoxification, healthy blood lipid levels, and blood sugar balance. Bile even influences the composition of the gut microbiome and in turn the gut microbiome influences the end products of bile metabolism. Ox bile is similar to human bile and has been used medicinally in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years. It is often added to enzyme products to further support digestion and can also be found as a standalone product.


Enzyme supplements can be a powerful tool to aid in digestion and support important metabolic functions throughout the body. Choosing a product that is right for you is a great start to promote optimal health!


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