Your body makes and uses thousands of enzymes every day—so it may seem odd that many enzymes are sold as dietary supplements. “Enzymes” may sound like something magical, and in some sense they are. Cells are the basic chemical unit of life and can do what they do only because enzymes enable them to do it. Enzymes regulate virtually every chemical reaction in our bodies and in all living cells everywhere.
Enzymes are proteins, and they make things happen. When secreted in the digestive tract, they help break down carbohydrates, fats and dietary proteins and detoxify alcohol. Each enzyme is designed to do a specific task—enzymes are not general workers. “Proteolytic” enzymes such as pepsin and trypsin work on proteins, amylase on carbohydrates, lipase on fats. When they are not helping to break down compounds, they help synthesize them. Some enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase (SOD), are antioxidants. A common suffix for enzymes, by the way, is “-ase."
Helping out your enzymes
Do you need to take enzymes to combat digestive problems such as a gassy stomach? To boost immunity and fight inflammation? To help your body make up a shortfall of enzymes that, according to the ads, occurs as you age? To ease arthritis or cure cancer? A score of websites urge you to buy enzymes for such reasons. “Improving general wellness” is another claim made for enzyme supplements. Manufacturers assure you that the modern world is destroying your natural enzymes—that toxins are everywhere, and that only by taking something to combat them can you stay healthy or recover your health. Enzyme products may come from the organs of animals or from plants such as papaya.
These remedies aren’t cheap. One popular supplement called Vitalzym, a combination of enzymes, costs about $40 a month.
Other enzyme problems
In fact, very little is known about Vitalzym and most other enzyme supplements. One problem with swallowing enzymes is that they are simply proteins and most will be broken down and digested in the stomach or intestines like other proteins. It may be possible to design enzymes that won't be destroyed by stomach acids; some, like Vitalzym, are enteric-coated for this reason. But despite manufacturers' claims, there's no evidence that the enzymes you swallow survive long enough to get into the bloodstream and travel to the cells that might need them.
Not all bunk
Enzyme-deficiency diseases, often genetic in origin, do exist, and enzyme therapy may be useful. For instance, doctors may prescribe digestive enzymes for pancreatic disease, chronic inflammatory bowel disease or cystic fibrosis.
In addition, there actually are two cheap, effective nonprescription enzyme supplements that do work—within the digestive tract. One is lactase (brand name Lactaid, but there are many generics). If you are lactose-intolerant—that is, your body doesn't produce enough lactase, the enzyme that digests lactose (milk sugar)—a lactase tablet taken before you drink milk or consume other dairy products can ward off indigestion. You can also add lactase drops to food, or buy milk already treated with lactase.
And then there's Beano and its generics, which can help reduce intestinal gas and bloating caused by beans and cruciferous vegetables. They contain an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase, which breaks down some of the complex sugars (oligosaccharides) in the foods. We have no intestinal enzymes to digest these oligosaccharides, so they may ferment in the large intestine and cause gas. You have to swallow the enzyme along with the beans.
Words to the wise: No enzyme supplement can boost immunity, fight inflammation, quell arthritis or improve general health, as some marketers claim. The American Cancer Society says enzyme supplements are of no known benefit in cancer treatment or prevention. If you have an enzyme-deficiency disease (other than lactose intolerance), you should be under medical care.