Breaking Down the Mystery Behind Enzymes

Breaking Down the Mystery Behind Enzymes

Contributed by Eve Persak, Nutrition Advisor, MS RD CNSC CSSD

What are digestive enzymes?

Most have heard of the word “enzymes”, but don’t really understand their role in the human body. Produced by the body, enzymes are substances that act as catalysts to accelerate chemical reactions - such as breaking down food into nutrients that can be easily absorbed - so as to maintain the biological and physiological pace of our lives. Without them, essential bodily processes would slow to a halt. 

Digestive enzymes are essential in the breakdown of the foods we eat.  With the chewing in the mouth and the mixing in the stomach, the foods we consume are mechanically processed into a soup-like consistency. The food particles in this mixture are now smaller, but not small enough. This is where enzymes come in. Chemical digestion is needed to further break down food particles so that they can move through the tiny pores lining the gastrointestinal tract. Only then can the nutrients from our food be absorbed into the bloodstream, metabolised and used to fuel the body’s needs.

Digestive enzymes – and enzymes in general - are not one-size-fits-all.  Each enzyme has its specific job. Amolytic enzymes convert complex carbohydrates like starches into simple sugars. Proteolytic enzymes whittle down large proteins into basic amino acids. Lipolytic enzymes reduce fats and oils into fatty acids and cholesterols. When you eat, your body evaluates the composition of nutrients and secretes the appropriate enzymes in the correct amounts.    

When breakdown breaks down…

Sometimes the enzymes available fall short of the body’s needs due to:

Decreased supply

There are circumstances when enzyme manufacturing – either the amount, the potency, or both – is less efficient.  When might this occur?  The production of all body secretions – including enzymes – naturally declines with old age. Likewise, an injured or weakened digestive system – due to a gastrointestinal disorder, a recent foodborne illness, sub-optimal nutrition, or stress - may also compromise enzyme levels.

Increased demand

The volume or complexity of our food intake – on single occasions or over longer periods – may exceed the body’s capacity for enzyme production.  Think richer and larger-than-usual buffet portions, celebratory dinners or consecutive nights of social dining during the festive season. 


Certain dietary substances can chemically block enzymes from participating in digestive reactions. Some medications, artificial ingredients in processed foods, and pesticides are known synthetic inhibitors. However, natural compounds in raw plant-based foods (nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains) can also reduce enzyme activity when consumed in large quantities.

What are the signs?

The body has its way of telling us when the digestive enzyme supply-and demand-operations are out of balance or interrupted. Common symptoms include indigestion, abdominal bloating and pain, gas, and abnormal bowel patterns - diarrhoea, constipation, or even greasy stools that float. Prolonged enzyme issues can also cause inadequate nutrient absorption and nutritional deficiencies which then present as fatigue, headaches, dizziness, hair loss, and changes in the skin.

Optimising enzymes in your body

Fortunately, there are many ways to maintain healthy enzyme levels.  For a start, avoid foods that may inhibit you body’s enzymes.  Steer clear of heavily processed products with chemical additives.  Likewise, opt for organic products when possible to reduce exposure to pesticides. Consider soaking, rinsing, culturing, fermenting and sprouting your plant-based ingredients. While slightly more time-consuming, these traditional methods can reduce their inherent enzyme-blocking activity and unlock nutrients, making them easier to digest. 

In a hurry?  Specialty products like sprouted grain breads and activated nuts will take care of the extra work for you. Other fresh foods such as whole fruits and uncooked vegetables are enzyme-rich sources. Two of my personal favourites, pineapple and papaya are chockfull of the protein-digesting enzymes, bromelain and papain, respectively. You can also speak to your physician and nutritionist about digestive enzyme supplements, as these have been shown to effectively alleviate digestive tract disorders, as well.  

If your symptoms are severe and persist chronically, it’s best to consult a medical doctor to check for underlying conditions that may require specialised attention. A registered dietician can also review your current dietary regime to identify meal patterns and specific types or combinations of foods that might contribute to your digestive troubles.