Enzymes: Your Body's Essential Workers

Updated: Mar 14

As soon as the pandemic hit we were all introduced to the term "essential worker". Someone our society needed to function such as grocery store workers, first responders etc. Did you know our body has it's own essential workers?

Image by Wilfried Pohnke from Pixabay


Essential Workers

By now, we have all become familiar with the concept of essential workers in our society: the farmers, the truckers, the grocery store workers, the garbage men etc. Imagine what would happen if those workers were not available. Within weeks, problems would start to emerge such as shortages of food along with excesses of trash as it piled up outside our house. Soon, not only would we be starving (lacking energy) but we would also have new neighbors to contend with as insects and rodents descended on decaying waste (toxins). In short, without these essential workers we would find our whole ecosystem out of balance.


With that silly analogy in mind, let’s now turn to our body and learn about our very own essential workers: enzymes. You may be asking yourself, enzymes? But what about vitamins, minerals, protein, fats and carbs along with all the other nutrients that we often read or hear about in the media. Yes, of course, those are all essential but they are essential as materials or building blocks. None of them actually have the capability of doing work. Just as carrots don’t pick themselves out of the ground, boxes don’t unpack themselves off the truck and trash doesn’t magically disappear, your body works in the same way in that it needs workers to make things happen.


Let’s take a closer look at what these enzyme workers do and why they are so important to our health. There are basically 3 broad categories of enzymes: metabolic enzymes, digestive enzymes and food enzymes.


Metabolic Enzymes


As the name suggests, metabolic enzymes are involved in every aspect of our metabolism, the building and breaking down of tissues, our respiration, elimination etc. If you think of a grocery story, metabolic enzymes are like all the workers behind the scenes that allow the grocery store to function. This would include the managers, the plumbers, the HVAC repairmen, the computer and IT workers etc. Many pharmaceutic medicines target metabolic enzyme pathways to have an affect on the body. They are referred to as either enzyme inhibitors (block enzyme activity) or enzyme inducers (increase enzyme activity). As you can imagine, metabolic enzyme activity is extremely complex and beyond the scope of our discussion for today.


Image by Wilfried Pohnke from Pixabay


Digestive Enzymes


Our digestive tract is an approximately 30 foot tube that runs from our mouth to our back side. When we eat a sandwich, for example, it travels through this tube much like a semi-truck traveling on a highway through the night to restock a grocery store. Any nutrients that are broken off this sandwich that are small enough to cross the tube wall (intestines) are absorbed into our body just as boxes of goods are unloaded off the truck. Any nutrients that can’t be broken down pass right on through and are not available for absorption much like our truck driving past the grocery store.


So who are the mid-night workers that unload the truck? Digestive enzymes of course and there are three main types: amylases (for carbs), proteases (for protein) and lipases (for fats). Now suppose, for whatever reason, there are not enough workers (enzymes) to unload the truck over the course of weeks or months. In time, the grocery store will run out of items and you’ll soon start to have unhappy customers. Unhappy customers (organs) can act in any number of unpredictable ways. They could get angry (inflamed) or irritable. They could also get fatigued or painful from lack of groceries (nutrients). Just as scarcity at the grocery store would cause innumerable problems with customers, scarcity of nutrients can cause innumerable health symptoms in our body.


Image by Wilfried Pohnke from Pixabay


Food Enzymes


Where do enzymes come from? Just like humans, every living animal and plant has it’s own enzymes. All you have to do to realize this is drop an apple on the floor and then leave it for a day. When you cut it the next day it would be discolored and start to be mushy. The reason for this is that the enzymes that were contained within the apple are released when the cell walls are broken. The apple as with any other raw food (including all fruits and vegetables, grains, meats, milk etc) have the enzymes to digest itself.


To illustrate this, let's return to our delivery truck scenario. Now suppose the farmers not only supplied the food that went out for delivery but also threw in a bunch of workers (food enzymes) on the truck as well. Imagine how much faster the grocery store workers (digestive enzymes) could unload the truck if they had all these other helpers who arrived with the delivery. Wow, it would be a very efficient process and the grocery shelves would be restocked in record time! What could go wrong? Well, what if something caused a delay on the delivery route, a traffic jam or construction. Those extra workers that the farmers sent with the food would start to get hungry and would begin to eat the food meant for delivery. When the delivery finally arrived, the grocery store owner would not be happy about not receiving the full order. If this happened enough times, the owner would eventually tell the trucking company and farmers, “thanks, but no thanks on the extra workers”. While this scenario is just a silly analogy, it is essentially what has happened in our modern food supply.


Pasteurization


The food industry learned about enzymes over a 100 years ago as it started transporting foods across the country and across the world. Any food that can digest itself is going to spoil more easily which in turn will hurt the bottom line. They soon discovered that enzymes were the problem for shelf life. So how do you get rid of enzymes? In a word: pasteurization. Pasteurization is just a fancy word for heat and heat kills enzymes. So anything that is heated or pasteurized is void of enzymes. Foods that don’t have enzymes can stay on shelves for weeks, months and even years without spoiling. While removing enzymes from food is great at reducing spoilage and increasing profits, it has long-term affects on our health.


We will explore this topic more next time. See you then!!


Nicholas Palumbo RD


Sources:

Howell, Dr. Edward, “Enzyme Nutrition: The food enzyme concept”; Avery Publishing Group, Inc 1985

Loomis D.C. Howard, “Enzymes: the Key to Health”; American Printing Company, Inc 2012

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