Working With Enzymes, Inside and Out
With or without knowing it, humans have harnessed the power of enzymes since time immemorial. After all, enzymes are an essential mechanism in the fermentation of such foods as miso, kimchee and sauerkraut, and one of the reasons these foods are so healthy for us. Whenever we eat any food its digestion and absorption into our bodies depends on chemical reactions, none of which would be possible without the catalyzing work of enzymes.
However, the enzymes that cause a baker’s bread to rise are not the same as those that enable us to digest our dinner. While both types are made up largely of proteins, and function similarly as catalysts in biochemical reactions, they are not interchangeable.
Scientists have counted more than 13,000 types of enzymes, each of which creates change when coupled with a specified substrate. For instance, the “latent enzymes” produced in our bodies can be differentiated into several types, the most common of which are digestive and metabolic.
The digestive enzymes are secreted from various organs of the digestive system. Some of these enzymes target proteins, others engage fats, and yet others process carbohydrates and starches. Deficiencies or overproduction of these enzymes can lead to many types of digestive ailments. (Interestingly, some of the same digestive enzymes secreted by our internal organs are also found in fruits and vegetables.*)
The processes that regenerate our skin, grow our hair, and build our bones all involve the second class of latent enzymes, those known as metabolic enzymes. When these enzymes fail to do their work, some of the first things that might occur in the body include weakening of the immune system, deterioration of the condition of our skin, and weight gain.
Yet while these two types of enzymes differ in function, they are still part of one system, in this case the human body. So while it is tempting to think of the body as an internal combustion engine that consumes food for fuel, it’s probably better to think of it as a trillion little engines, of many types, working in concert to get the job done.