The expression “systemic enzymes” refers to enzymes taken between meals on an empty stomach, as opposed to digestive enzymes taken with food. When enzymes are taken between meals they are absorbed and have effects that are systemic, or throughout the body. By contrast, digestive enzymes are designed primarily to support digestion.
The very idea that enzymes could be absorbed when taken by mouth was initially questioned because enzymes are large proteins and the body typically digests protein down to its amino acid components and only absorbs those.
However, research conducted by Max Wolf MD, PhD at Columbia University through the 1970’s proved definitively that enzymes are absorbed and not digested. Nevertheless, skepticism and prejudice regarding enzyme absorption continues to be widespread in the medical community and many college nutrition texts continue to state that enzymes cannot be absorbed. The research on enzyme absorption is reviewed in the booklet “Enzymes, the Fountain of Life” available for a nominal charge from www.amazon.com.
The discovery that the body is capable of absorbing enzymes without digesting them provides further evidence of the central role they play in health. The mechanism of enzyme absorption may have evolved to conserve and recycle enzymes once digestion was complete or to absorb enzymes found in food, as most foods in their natural fresh state are rich in enzymes.
In fact, enzymes play many critical roles in health, and digestion is only one of these. Enzymes are the key that enables chemical reactions to take place inside the body. Without enzymes there can be no metabolic activity, and life as we know it would come to an end. Scientists have identified 3,000 enzymes in the human body that are responsible for carrying out thousands of chemical reactions each on a daily basis. Even though there are so many different enzymes, most of them are derivatives of protein-digesting (proteolytic) enzymes, and these can be taken as supplements.
To get an idea of the importance of enzymes in health, consider that all the B vitamins we take have only one function in the body: to act as coenzymes, critical components that activate enzymes. Minerals themselves act primarily as catalysts, another essential prerequisite for enzyme to work. If you ever wondered why some people do so well with B vitamins, whereas others don’t seem to respond at all, the answer may be that those who do not respond are deficient in enzymes. You cannot facilitate the action of something that is not there!
It is a fact that we are born with the capacity to produce all the enzymes we need, but at different times we can lose this capability for a variety of reasons, including poor diet, viral or other infection, and exposure to mercury or other toxins. Aging itself causes us to lose the ability to make enough enzymes, and the first thing we may need to do to combat any effects of aging is to replenish our enzymes.
The benefits of systemic enzymes are also backed by substantial research. Just typing in a few keywords in PubMed – the internet service that provides access to medical research – yields hundreds of entries. I will not cover this research here but will include a few links at the end of this article for anyone wanting to know more. In summary, there are five different areas of health in which systemic enzymes have been found to have benefits. Each of these areas is covered briefly below:
1. Fighting inflammation
Acute inflammation is a healthy process that enables us to fight off infections or initiate recovery from trauma. However, chronic inflammation is purely destructive and results from the body’s inability to shut down the inflammatory process when it is no longer needed. As I often say to people, pain from an injury is normal during recovery, but pain that lasts months or years with no sign of abating indicates that something in the body has gone awry. Today, this type of chronic pain is our countryís Number One epidemic, accounting for more visits to doctors’ offices than any other cause.
But chronic inflammation is more that just pain. For example, a marker in blood called high sensitivity C-reactive protein (HS-CRP) was found to be a better predictor of heart disease than high cholesterol, cholesterol ratios or anything else. HS-CRP is nothing other than an indicator of chronic inflammation. The more scientists learn about inflammation the more it becomes apparent that it plays a role either in causing or establishing a favorable environment for the development of almost all diseases of aging, from cancer to diabetes, and even neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.
Systemic enzymes have been shown repeatedly in research to alleviate chronic inflammation and pain. Studies comparing various enzyme formulations to medications have typically found that enzymes work as well as or better than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in controlling pain. The major differences are that enzymes take longer to start working and several pills need to be taken multiple times a day for optimal benefits.
Another important difference is how they work. Medications including aspirin, ibuprofen, Celebrex, Vioxx and other NSAIDs all work by suppressing the bodyís production of chemicals known as prostaglandins. Some prostaglandins cause inflammation and pain, while others play important roles in protecting the intestinal lining, the heart, or the kidneys. As a result, all these medications have side effects that range from stomach irritation and ulcers to heart disease and death.
By contrast, enzymes work by enhancing the body’s inborn mechanisms to control pain and inflammation. They normalize immune function by breaking down abnormal proteins known as circulating immune complexes (CICs) that keep triggering the inflammatory cycle. They also help reduce swelling and literally digest away irritating protein deposits in joints and other inflamed areas of the body.
A type of enzyme that has been shown to be particularly helpful in controlling inflammation is the pineapple-derived enzyme bromelain. Although taking bromelain alone can help, studies and clinical practice indicate that enzyme combinations that include bromelain alongside other enzymes work best by creating synergistic effects.
In hundreds and possibly thousands of studies on the anti-inflammatory actions of systemic enzymes, no adverse effects have ever been identified, only added benefits, some of which are reviewed in the sections below.
2. Breaking down fibrosis and scarring
Enzymes are also helpful is controlling or reversing the deposition of fibrin in tissues. This is often a result of aging and loss of the body’s ability to produce its own enzymes that naturally control fibrin deposition. Fibrin ends up choking off the supply of blood and nutrients to peripheral areas of the body, leading to hardening and drying up of organs and other tissues that were once soft and pliable.
In certain conditions, this process is particularly severe. In fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by diffuse and unrelenting muscle pain, fibrin deposits in muscle tissue can be demonstrated microscopically. In this condition the pain is not a result of inflammation and is typically not alleviated by NSAIDs. However, it often responds to high doses of systemic enzymes as these slowly break down and dissolve fibrin deposits.
Other conditions associated with fibrin buildup include fibrocystic breast disease, uterine fibroids, endometriosis, and even arterial sclerotic plaque. All of these conditions can be helped to varying degrees with systemic enzymes.
Scar tissue formation after surgery can also be a severe problem and may even require a second surgery for its removal. Research has shown that systemic enzymes help speed up recovery from surgery while reducing swelling and scar tissue formation. Given enough time and sufficient doses, enzymes can also break down existing scar tissue.
An enzyme called serrapeptase or serratia peptidase has been shown to be particularly helpful in this area. It is produced by the larval forms of the silk moth that use it break down their cocoon walls, one of the most fibrous substances known in nature. Like bromelain, serrapeptase has also been studied for its anti-inflammatory effects but seems to excel at breaking down fibrin deposits and scar tissue. Some doctors have even used it to help clear arterial plaque, although evidence of its benefits in this area is scant and there are no published studies to confirm it.
3. Cleansing the blood
We all know that blood distributes nutrients to tissues, but what we may not think of is that it also collects garbage produced by cell metabolism throughout the body. It is then the liver’s job to break down this metabolic waste and package it for excretion from the body. However, it is easy to see how, in today’s toxic environment, the liver can become overwhelmed and no longer able do this very efficiently.
In addition, various proteins including fibrin, plasmin, and others can build up in blood causing it to become thick and sticky, and increasing the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Systemic enzymes have been shown to break down metabolic waste enabling the body to easily eliminate it. They also break down the proteins that lead to clot formation, effectively thinning the blood and improving its flow characteristics.
The only caution here is for people already on blood-thinning medications such as Coumadin, Heparin or Plavix. These people should only take enzymes under direct medical supervision while at the same time cutting back their medications. As the enzymes reduce the need for these drugs, they also increase the drugsí effectiveness, leading to a risk of overdosing and spontaneous bleeding.
Although all systemic enzymes have some blood-thinning effects, an enzyme called nattokinase has been researched specifically and found the particular benefits in this area. It is derived from a fermented soybean product called natto used in traditional Japanese medicine for thousands of years. In Japan, natto is believed to increase longevity, strengthen the heart and sharpen the mind. Modern researchers have found it to have potent blood-thinning actions resulting from its capacity to digest proteins that lead to clot formation. Unlike blood-thinning medications it does not have a toxic dose and will not lead to spontaneous bleeding at any level of intake.
4. Normalizing immune function
Systemic enzymes have been shown to have an adaptogenic (normalizing) effect on the immune system. This involves stimulating immune function, in conditions involving immune deficiency, and calming down the immune system in conditions associated with excessive immune activation, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
5. Fighting viruses
There are a number of studies showing that systemic enzymes have antiviral effects. In some studies enzymes were shown to have similar effects to medications like Acyclovir in controlling shingles and other herpes-related conditions. Other studies have shown that enzymes can slow down viral replication in HIV and hepatitis C.
The action of enzymes in this area is surely complex but results at least in part from strengthening and normalizing immune function. It also appears that enzymes have a direct action to neutralize viruses by “digesting” proteins they use to attach to and infect human cells.
Useful links and references:
The book “The Aspirin Alternative” available from www.amazon.com reviews some of the research on systemic enzymes. Although interesting, this book promotes a specific product that may no longer the best choice.
The website www.totalityofbeing.com also contains a number of interesting articles on enzymes and some references to published research. This site also promotes a specific line of products.
The site http://www.worldnutrition.info/index.html contains information and research on a line of products this company produces. In my experience these products are well-formulated and produce excellent results although unfortunately quite expensive.
Top-quality vitamin manufacturer Thorne has an excellent review of the research on the pineapple-derived enzyme bromelain at http://www.thorne.com/altmedrev/fulltext/bromelain1-4.html. Keep in mind, however, that enzymes like bromelain work best in combination with other enzymes. In addition, some people – including many children with autism – have trouble tolerating fruit enzymes like bromelain.
The enzyme serrapeptase is sometimes called the “butterfly enzyme” although this is not truly accurate as in reality it is made by a moth. In any case it is also very effective either as an alternative to bromelain or in combination with it. Find references to research on this enzyme at http://www.enerex.ca/articles/serrapeptase.htm.
The site http://www.springboard4health.com/notebook/health_nattokinase.html provides a nice description and review of the research on nattokinase. Although they also sell this product I am not familiar with this company or the quality of their products.