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Enzymes in the news, keys to both cancer metastasis and health

March 9th, 2009

Electron microscope shows the 3D structure of alpha amylase, an enzyme used to digest starch.

Electron microscope shows the 3D structure of alpha amylase, an enzyme used to digest starch.

A recently published cancer-research study provides new insights into the way cancer spreads (metastasizes) throughout the body.  A key to the process is the LOX enzyme that cancer cells use to prepare a remote site for new tumor growth.  Enzymes are in fact intricately involved in both sides of the health equation; promoting both health and disease process. So what are enzymes and how can you use this knowledge to better protect your health?  Find out in today’s AllStarHealth blog.

What Are Enzymes?

Most enzymes are proteins, and as such constitute a very broad category of biological compounds.  Thousands of different enzymes have been identified in animals, plants and microbes. Practically every living thing utilizes enzymes to maintain health and stay alive.

What Do Enzymes Do?

In very general terms, enzymes are used to catalyze chemical reactions in the body. That is, enzymes break down complex chemicals into more simple, fundamental substances and enzymes are also used when assembling simpler substances into more complex compounds. That may not sound too exciting, but both types of processes are essential to life.  Growth, repair and maintenance of the body  – producing new hair, skin, muscle, bone, immune factors, hormones and other biochemicals – all of these depend on enzymatic processes, as smaller building blocks are assembled into the finished product. Even the manufacture of enzymes depends on other enzymes.

Just as importantly, enzymes are used to break down complex compounds into smaller parts. For example enzymes are used in digestion to break down food into the individual nutrients we need. So as a whole, enzymes are and integral and intimate part of life, in the most literal sense.

Enzymes As Supplements

Enzymes are also an established and growing category of nutritional supplement. But they’re different than vitamins and minerals.  Unlike those necessary nutrients,  enzyme supplements aren’t taken to meet nutritional needs, and there are no Recommended Daily Allowances for enzymes. Instead, they’re used to support specific processes in the body in a way that benefits health.  Here’s where they offer unique and potentially very valuable benefits unavailable from necessary nutrients and even most drugs.

Our capacity to produce all enzymes diminishes with age.  So as we get older, we’re in an increasingly greater position to take advantage of supplemental enzymes, and that’s why enzymes supplements are most popular with older people. But by no means are they only beneficial to older people.  People of almost any age can use them because, unless a person is reckless and completely disregards label directions and common sense, enzymes supplements are very-safe and forgiving, with extremely low toxicity and risks to health.

Types of Enzyme Supplements: Digestive

One of the most popular types of enzyme supplement are digestive enzymes.  Other types of enzyme supplements are not intended to affect digestion are usually known as systemic enzymes.  In the next blog post, we’ll look at the different systemic enzymes but for now, let’s focus on digestive enzymes.

There are hundreds of digestive enzyme products on the market. Digestive enzyme supplements will either be specific for certain types of food (proteins, fats, carbs, beans, lactose dairy) or will be broad-spectrum and able to assist your body in breaking down any combination of foods and nutrients. These complete digestive formulas are one of the most common types of enzyme supplements. They’re very safe and easy to use, helping to produce a comfortable, settled feeling after a meal.

Digestive enzyme supplements can contain plant-sourced enzymes like bromelain (from pineapple) and papain (from papaya), or enzymes from animal sources (trypsin or pancreatin, for example).  Incidentally, all of these are proteolytic enzymes, meaning they help to break down proteins.

Bromelain from pineapple (stems and fruit) and papapin from papaya, are two popular plant-based enzymes used in many supplements.

Bromelain from pineapple and papain from papaya: two popular plant-based enzymes used in many enzyme supplements.

Here’s the key to getting the best result  out of a digestive enzyme; take it at the very beginning of a meal. This allows them to begin to work as soon as your body does.  It almost defeats the purpose to take them at the end of a meal, since digestion begins with the first bite swallowed.

But perhaps more troublesome than that is the heartburn that can result when enzymes are taken to late after eating has begun. This is especially true with digestive enzymes that contain supplemental hydrochloric acid.  Hydrochloric acid won’t be listed on the label as hydrochloric acid, though.  It will be listed as betaine hydrochloride or betaine HCl. Despite how harsh hydrochloric acid is, it’s actually a very good idea to include the stable form, betaine HCl, in a supplement for a few reasons. One is that certain digestive enzymes require a highly acidic environment to become activated and functional. Another is that, just like the enzymes themselves, we produce less and less HCl as we age. In fact, some people with acid reflux paradoxically get great results when using digestive enzymes that include hydrochloric acid (don’t try this without working with your doctor, however).  It’s counter-intuitive that this would be so, but one popular theory explains it in the following way.

The thinking is that insufficient production of hydrochloric acid and enzymes is what gives rise to the reflux in the first place.  Without enough enzymes and/or enough hydrochloric acid to activate them, the stomach cannot break food down quickly and completely enough, resulting in a fermentation-like process that produces gas and pressure but only incomplete digestion.  Food won’t empty from the stomach because that stage of digestion has not been completed.  The body continues to add enzymes as the food slowly breaks down, gaseous waste products may also be produced, all of which increase the volume of the stomach contents and sense of pressure. With nowhere to go but up,  a person will feel uncomfortable pressure and distention in the epigastric region, accompanied by a burning sensation when pressure is sufficient to force the acidic contents of the stomach into the lower esophagus. By taking an acid-fortified digestive enzyme formula at the very beginning of a meal, this entire sequence of events is averted.

Digestive enzyme supplements are one thing. But what about systemic enzymes?  That’s where it gets a little confusing since many of the same enzymes found in digestive enzyme supplements are also used in systemic enzymes. So please check back on Wednesday March 11, 2009 where we’ll devote some time to understanding some of the very interesting and useful new systemic enzyme supplements.

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