What are enzymes?

Enzymes are proteins that help speed up metabolism or chemical reactions in our bodies. They build some substances and break down others. All living things have enzymes. Our bodies naturally produce enzymes. But enzymes are also found in manufactured products and foods.

What do enzymes do?

One of the most important functions of enzymes is to aid in digestion. Digestion is the process of converting the food we eat into energy. For example, there are enzymes in our saliva, pancreas, intestines, and stomach. They break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Enzymes use these nutrients for cell growth and repair.

Enzymes also help with:

  • Breathing.
  • Building muscle.
  • nerve function.
  • Free our bodies of toxins.

What are the different types of enzymes?

There are thousands of individual enzymes in the body. Each type of enzyme only has one job. For example, the enzyme sucrase breaks down a sugar called sucrose. Lactase breaks down lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy products.

Some of the most common digestive enzymes are:

  • Carbohydrase breaks down carbohydrates into sugars.
  • Lipase breaks down fats into fatty acids.
  • Protease breaks down protein into amino acids.

What are the parts of an enzyme?

Each enzyme has an “active site.” This area has a unique shape. The substance on which an enzyme acts as a substrate. The substrate also has a unique shape. The enzyme and the substrate must fit together to function.

How do temperature and pH affect enzymes?

Enzymes need the right conditions to function. If conditions are not right, enzymes can change shape. Then they no longer fit the substrates, so they don’t work properly.

Each enzyme has an ideal temperature and pH:

  • pH: Enzymes are sensitive to acidity and alkalinity. They do not work properly if an environment is too acidic or basic. For example, an enzyme in the stomach called pepsin breaks down protein. If your stomach doesn’t have enough acid, pepsin can’t work optimally.
  • Temperature: Enzymes work best when your body temperature is normal, around 98.6°F (37°C). As the temperature increases, the enzymatic reactions increase. But if the temperature gets too high, the enzyme stops working. This is why a high fever can disrupt bodily functions.

What health conditions can cause enzyme problems?

Metabolic disorders are often the result of not having enough of a certain enzyme. Parents can pass them on to their children through their genes (inherited). Some examples of inherited metabolic disorders include:

  • Fabry disease prevents the body from making enzymes (alpha-galactosidase A) that break down fats (lipids).
  • Krabbe’s disease (globoid cell leukodystrophy) affects the enzymes necessary for the protective covering (myelin) of nerve cells (Central Nervous System).
  • Maple syrup urine disease affects the enzymes needed to break down certain branched-chain amino acids.

Other health conditions linked to enzyme imbalances include:

  • Crohn’s disease, an imbalance of bacteria in the gut (gut microbiome), can influence an autoimmune response from the intestinal tract. This may play a role in the presentation and severity of Crohn’s disease.
  • Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) is a condition in which the pancreas does not have enough digestive enzymes. You cannot break down food or absorb nutrients. Chronic pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, diabetes, or cystic fibrosis can lead to PID.
  • Lactose intolerance is a shortage of the enzyme needed to digest the sugars in milk (lactose) and dairy products.

How are enzyme tests used to diagnose health conditions?

Your health care provider may use a variety of protein and enzyme blood tests to check for certain health conditions. For example, elevated liver enzymes could be a sign of liver disease.

Do I need to take enzyme supplements?

People without chronic health problems can usually get the enzymes they need from a healthy diet. But, if you have certain health conditions, your health care provider may recommend that you take enzyme supplements. For example, many people with PID can take a digestive enzyme before eating. This helps their bodies absorb nutrients from food. Talk to your health care provider before taking any type of enzyme supplement.

Can medications affect enzyme levels?

Some medications affect enzyme levels. For example, antibiotics can kill certain bacteria needed for some enzymes to work better. This is the reason why antibiotics can cause diarrhoea. To kill the bacteria that make you sick, they also kill the important good bacteria that aid in digestion. Statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) can increase liver enzymes and muscle enzymes. They can increase the risk of liver or muscle damage.

When should I contact my doctor about an enzyme problem?

You won’t know if you have an enzyme problem without a blood test. Contact your doctor if you experience any of the following problems:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Bloating or gas.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Fatigue.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Unexplained weight loss.
  • Low red blood cell count (anaemia).
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding