If there is one topic that is woefully under-discussed in the holistic world, it is the topic of enzymes. Most people have heard of enzymes and know that they are important for some reason, but what exactly is that reason is beyond them. Hopefully I can shed some light on this topic and explain what enzymes are and why they are important. In part I we will look at the basics of enzyme function and in part II we will look at the functions of specific enzymes in particular.
I flunked high school biology… what are enzymes?
Enzymes are “biological catalysts that speed up the chemical reactions in all living things.”1 What does that mean? The human body is basically a laboratory of endless chemical reactions being performed continuously. Without enzymes, the chemical reactions necessary for the body to function properly would take so long to react that you would probably die. (Can you imagine what your death certificate would look like? Cause of death: slow chemical reactions).
Simply put, enzymes enable everything in your body work to faster and more smoothly so that you don’t die from inefficiency (a truly horrible fate).
Enzymes are proteins made up of long amino acid chains that fold in specific ways to form unique shapes (see image 1). The enzyme has a pocket or groove called the active site to which a specific compound called the substrate binds, which it then breaks up into smaller parts called the products.1
For instance, the enzyme sucrase breaks up its substrate sucrose (table sugar) into its products, glucose and fructose. Enzymes also catalyze the synthesis of compounds, meaning that enzymes take smaller parts and bind them together to make a larger compound. What makes enzymes so special is that one enzyme has a very specifically shaped active site that only “fits” one type of substrate much like a lock and key. The enzyme is the lock and only one type of key (substrate) will fit in that lock (see image 2).
Did you know that enzymes point to God’s unique design?
Did you that there are over 3,000 different enzymes in the body that we know of that perform a vast array of chemical reactions? 2 Now, let’s think about this. Each of the 3,000 enzymes (locks) have their own unique substrates (keys). Can you imagine trying to keep track of 6,000 different locks and keys? Not only does your body have to keep track of the enzymes and substrates, it has to produce the right amounts of each of the 3,000 different enzymes depending on the amount of substrates available or the body function that needs to be performed. If the body starts producing the wrong enzymes or the wrong amounts of enzymes, the system might begin to fall apart.
There is no possible way that this complex organization happened by chance. God meticulously designed and programmed the body with all the information necessary to its survival. If this all came about by random chance, there would be wrong enzymes produced at wrong concentrations, and life would not be possible.
Okay… what do these overachievers actually do?
What processes are enzymes involved in? Pretty much everything that happens in the body is facilitated by enzymes. Enzymes are generally split into two categories: metabolic enzymes and digestive enzymes. Metabolic enzymes are involved in most cellular functions of the body including cellular respiration (releasing energy from compounds such as glucose), energy storage, and DNA replication and transcription.3 These enzymes are required for growth and for the repair and maintenance of all organs and tissues.
Digestive enzymes are generally what we think of when we think of enzymes. These little guys are responsible for breaking down everything you eat into particles that the body can use for its wellbeing.
There is a specific set of environmental factors that need to be in proportion for enzymes to be able to do their job efficiently, the main factors being temperature and pH. All digestive and metabolic enzymes in the body function best at about 37° C (98° F) which just so happens to be normal body temperature. A slight rise in temperature might cause enzymes to catalyze faster, as in the case of a fever, but temperatures much higher than its optimum will denature the enzyme.
Optimal pH levels, on the other hand, vary widely in human enzymes depending on their function. Some enzymes work best in an extremely acidic environment and are denatured in an alkaline environment while other enzymes function at optimal levels in a more alkaline environment and are denatured in others.
Nirel, you’re using big words. Please explain.
What is denaturing? As I mentioned before, enzymes are composed of long amino acids chains that are folded in certain shapes and held together by relatively weak hydrogen bonds. As the environment is heated, the enzyme begins to vibrate more and more violently until the bonds break and the enzyme, in essence, falls apart or begins to unravel (see image 3). When this happens, the enzyme is rendered inactive or useless because it’s shape has been altered; thus, the “key” no longer fits in the “lock”. Changes in pH also interfere with the hydrogen bonds, and, again, the enzyme begins to lose its shape and is denatured.
We have evidences of enzymes being denatured all around us. When you fry an egg, enzymes and proteins in the white of the egg are denatured by the heat of the stove; we see the evidence of the denaturing process by the egg turning white and becoming solid.
My first time baking bread was a complete flop because I failed to take into account the action of the enzymes present in the yeast. When making bread dough, you are supposed to mix the yeast with warm water to begin the fermentation process. However, me being the genius that I am, thought that warm water and boiling hot water were the same and I wondered why my bread became something that could be used as a weapon of mass destruction. The boiling hot water denatured the enzymes necessary to make the bread rise, thus I ended up with bricks for dinner. Delightful stuff, let me tell you. Needless to say, I no longer make bread.
Is denaturing a good thing?
Denatured enzymes can be beneficial, especially when it comes to food preservation. All plant and animal products contain enzymes that are necessary in the decomposition process. Denaturing these enzymes enables you to preserve food for longer periods of time. Pasteurization denatures enzymes in milk and other produce through the use of heat, giving these products a longer shelf life. Salting, pickling, fermenting, or freezing are other ways to denature or inactivate enzymes to preserve food.4
While preserving food is a very beneficial tool to have, the advent of mass-produced foods needing longer shelf lives has brought about some other undesirable changes. The enzymes naturally occurring in plant and animal foods aid the body’s own enzymes in the digestion process making the workload lighter for the body. With the majority of commercial foods being devoid or greatly lacking in enzyme content, the workload becomes much more taxing for the body. This phenomenon manifests in many of the digestive complaints that we hear of today.
For instance, the pasteurization of milk destroys certain enzymes that would normally help the body digest the milk more easily. The body may not be able to produce enough enzymes required to digest all the milk, thus creating an imbalance in the body. The longer undigested food sits in the gut, the more likely your body is to react to the food particles with an inflammatory response, or what we perceive as an allergy or intolerance to certain foods.
Ain’t nobody got time for such a long article. What’s the important stuff?
In summary, enzymes catalyze chemical reactions in the body. Metabolic enzymes are responsible for growth and maintenance of body tissues and organs. Digestive enzymes break down food into useful compounds for the body. Denaturing enzymes can be beneficial in food preservation, but harmful in other ways because it causes the workload to be more burdensome on the body.
Click here to read part 2! We’ll be discussing some specific enzymes and their roles in the body, how to increase your enzyme intake, and other tips to stay healthy.