Living Unrefined

Enzymes Definition and Functions

What is enzyme and its function?

Enzymes are proteins required by almost every process in our bodies and they seem to be pretty important to life. One source says there are 55,000 of these specialized proteins in our body; another says 75,000.

It seems to depend on whom we ask but who’s counting and do we care?

enzyme definition

Yes, we care but only to the extent that our body starts losing its ability to manufacture certain ones at which time we might have to supplement.

No matter how many there are, we need them all and since scientists like to classify things, all our enzymatic catalysts have been neatly segregated into three classes.

The metabolic type runs the vital processes of the body. A digestive type does just that; digests our food. The third type is contained in food and kick starts the digestive process.

The digestive catalysts should not be confused with the gut flora that also assists in digestion; they are bacteria, not catalytic proteins.

what is an enzyme

Enzymes as Catalyst Definition and Function

The word “catalyst” has been used several times here so maybe it should be defined. A catalyst is something, in this case a protein, which speeds up a chemical reaction.

Since all reactions need a certain amount of energy to get started, a catalyst lowers the “activation energy” as it’s called thus starting the reaction sooner and making it proceed faster.

These guys really put the pedal to the metal since typical enzymatic reactions proceed millions of times faster than uncatalyzed reactions.

The whole subject is extremely complex with a whole new set of terminology to learn. For example, the molecule that is acted upon is a substrate, inhibitors are third-party molecules that decrease enzymatic activity and activators are molecules that increase the rate of activity.


The word “cofactor” is frequently encountered when dealing with this subject and can be considered as a helper molecule that helps with a biological chemical reaction.

For our purposes cofactors are non-proteins that are bound
to a protein and are necessary for the reaction to occur at all.

Cofactors can be organic or inorganic and are also classified as to how tightly or loosely they are bound to their host.

A loosely bound cofactor is called a coenzyme and we will see more of that on another page where Coenzyme Q10
(CoQ10) is covered. A tightly bound cofactor is called a prosthetic group.

Nomenclature and Function

The purpose is not to get deeply into the science of how an enzymatic reaction works but rather to focus on when we might need to supplement certain ones, which ones and how much.

In spite of the huge number in our body, it is estimated that they catalyze about 4000 reactions.

If we see a chemical compound that ends with the suffix “ase” it is probably an enzyme and very often their name is descriptive of their function. For example we have two in our saliva, lipase and amylase.

Both of them start digestion in the mouth as food is chewed. Lipase breaks down fat (think lipid) and amylase breaks down carbohydrates and starch into sugar (amyl derives from the Latin and Greek word for starch).

Protease breaks down protein but not in the mouth, it operates in the GI tract. Cellulase breaks down the cellulose in fruit, vegetables and grains.

Lactase breaks down milk sugar and this is one that may need to be supplemented as we age since its production declines with age resulting in lactose intolerance.


There seems to be two extremes when it comes to supplementation of catalytic proteins.

The first is usually espoused by the medical community and university researchers who claim that every catalytic agent we need to function is produced by our bodies from the food we consume.

Supplementation is totally unnecessary and a waste of money with possibly one or two exceptions; those being lactase and alpha-galactosidase…Lactaid or Beano anyone?

They all fall back on the old bromide that while they seem to have some positive effect when administered to lab mice, there is no clinical evidence that they do one bit of good for humans.

The University of California Berkeley’s Wellness Guide to Dietary Supplements has a lot to say about enzyme supplements, both pro and con.
The Universities bottom line, to quote, is that “No enzyme supplement can boost immunity, fight inflammation, quell arthritis or improve general health, as some marketers claim.”

The other extreme is usually taken by companies that produce and sell such supplements or health providers who have built a reputation on enzymatic therapy to maintain health as we age.

This group is not exactly unbiased either and claims from all of them should be researched thoroughly before parting with our hard earned money.

One of the more notable in this group that sells their line of supplements and one that seems to have some credibility is Enzymedica. Their products are primarily focused on digestion but also offer a blood purifier, an allergy blend and a cardiovascular product.

Their claim is that they research the therapeutic effectiveness of plant based catalytics through doctors and clinicians and that the company is coordinating and funding ongoing research.