What Are Digestive Enzymes? | 1MD Nutrition™

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What Are Digestive Enzymes?

Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down larger molecules like fats, proteins, and carbs into smaller molecules that are easier to absorb across the small intestine. Without digestive enzymes, the body is unable to digest food particles properly.

18 minute read

Last Updated April 7, 2022

What Are Digestive Enzymes? | 1MD

If you are looking to promote healthy digestion and proper nutrient absorption, digestive enzymes may be the answer. If you are not familiar with digestive enzymes and how they can support your overall health, the information below features everything you need to know, including what they are, how they work, choosing the best digestive enzyme supplement, and more.

We understand how busy life can get and research takes a lot of time and patience, so we created a digestive enzymes guide to help you move forward towards good health.

What are Digestive Enzymes?

Primarily made and secreted by your pancreas and small intestines, digestive enzymes are special proteins that support certain chemical reactions within your body. (Minimal amounts of digestive enzymes are also secreted by your stomach and salivary glands.)

By doing this, they facilitate the breakdown of the food you eat into smaller particles of nutrients, allowing your body to more easily absorb them.

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While there are too many digestive enzymes to list them all, there are three enzymes in particular that are responsible for breaking down most of the common food groups. They include:

Amylase

Produced by your pancreas, alpha-amylase breaks down carbohydrates and starches into simple sugars. Enzymes that break down carbs and sugars may be referred to as carbohydrases.

Lipase

Also produced in your pancreas, lipase breaks down fats and triglycerides into glycerol and fatty acids.

Protease

Protease refers to multiple enzymes that are responsible for breaking proteins down into amino acids. The three main proteases are chymotrypsin, pepsin, and trypsin. Chymotrypsin and trypsin are produced in your pancreas, while pepsin is produced in your stomach.

Other digestive enzymes of importance include:

Cellulase

Cellulase is responsible for breaking down cellulose into simple sugars. Your body is unable to produce cellulose on its own. This digestive enzyme can be found in most raw foods, including broccoli and apples.

Lactase

Produced in your intestines, lactase is a dairy sugar that converts lactose into glucose.

Maltase

Produced in the pancreas and saliva, maltase is responsible for breaking down maltose and other similar sugars into glucose.

a man and a woman eating food

Alpha-Galactosidase

This enzyme commonly works to digest sugars that are present in many complex carbohydrates to help reduce occasional gas and bloating, particularly after eating.

Phytase

Phytase helps to break down phytic acid which can bind to important minerals such as calcium, iron, and zinc, allowing the body to absorb them better.

How Digestive Enzymes Help Absorption

As mentioned above, your body can only absorb nutrients, not actual food. Following the proper process of digestion is important for proper nutrient absorption. This is why you want to ensure you have enough digestive enzymes in your body to support the digestive process, which includes:

Chewing

From the moment you start chewing, your digestive enzymes begin to work on breaking foods down for nutrient absorption. Salivary amylase starts the process, allowing you to chew it up for swallowing, pushing it down the esophagus and into your stomach. This process is known as peristalsis.

Stomach Digestion

Once food enters your stomach, your stomach’s parietal cells are triggered to release various acids and digestive enzymes that are needed to break down partially digested food into chyme (a semi-fluid mass of partially digested food.) The specific enzymes released are based on what type of food you have eaten.

a person in a blue tank topSmall Intestine Digestion

The chyme, then, moves into your small intestine (also referred to as your duodenum). Here, digestive enzymes from your small intestine and pancreas separate out the nutrients in food. Once they have been sufficiently broken down and separated, your body holds onto the nutrients it needs. They are absorbed into your bloodstream, through your intestinal wall, and transported to cells, organs, and the muscle tissue throughout your body

Waste Products

Any waste products that are not absorbed through your intestinal wall will continue moving along into your colon, before being expelled from your body.

Your body needs digestive enzymes to support these processes and while your body does produce digestive enzymes, the more you rely on those that are internally produced, the harder it is for your body to continually replace them. When these enzymes are not available to break down food into microscopic substances that can be used, the nutrients, remain trapped in the food, unable to reach the parts of your body that need them.

Why is Digestive Health Important?

As a natural part of aging, the body’s production of enzymes begins to slow. In order to promote overall health, the digestive tract must be functioning at optimal levels so nutrients needed by the body are properly absorbed. 

Many common symptoms, such as occasional abdominal discomfort, bloating, and even diarrhea, among others, can be caused by poor digestion of food. When food is properly digested, the body will be able to eliminate waste efficiently and people experience rejuvenated abdominal comfort.

The bacteria that reside in your gut make up 70% of your immune system, which means digestive health can support proper immune responses. Without proper digestion, your body is not as prepared to fend off everyday toxins and threats. 

The gut is also home to about 80 to 90% of your body’s serotonin, a neurotransmitter that allows your brain cells and nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Healthy digestion and proper cell communication can help support everyday mood and calm emotions. 

Good colon health is crucial to ensure your digestive system is working properly, allowing your body to get both the nutrients it needs to thrive and eliminate wastes. Supplementing with digestive enzymes can support colon health by reducing the amounts of everyday toxins in the gut.

Foods that Boost Digestive Function

There are a number of foods that can support your body’s natural ability to produce digestive enzymes. Unfortunately, this only extends to raw foods, and you can’t always be certain that the enzymes available in these foods are adequate enough to support digestion without supplementation. The top foods to eat that will either promote digestive enzyme production or aid in digestive processes themselves are:

a lemon cut in halfPineapple

Also an exotic fruit, pineapple is filled with enzymes, particularly bromelain, that help promote enzyme production. Bromelain enzyme is particularly effective at breaking down proteins and fats. As an added bonus, the enzymes in pineapples have also been shown to help reduce occasional oxidative stress in the body.

Papaya

This exotic fruit, known for its distinct aroma and buttery sweetness, is a great source of papain, an enzyme that helps to break down meats, as well as other proteins. Papain does this by dismantling the complex proteins’ peptide bonds and breaking them down into individual amino acids.

Pineapple

Also an exotic fruit, pineapple is filled with enzymes, particularly bromelain, that help promote enzyme production. Bromelain enzyme is particularly effective at breaking down proteins and fats. As an added bonus, the enzymes in pineapples have also been shown to help reduce occasional oxidative stress in the body.

Raw Honey

The bees that make the honey actually introduce digestive enzymes into it, including proteases, amylase, and sucrase Proteases and amylase are discussed above. Sucrase breaks down sucrose (the sugar found in regular table sugar) into glucose your body uses as a source of energy.

Fermented Vegetables

When vegetables go through fermentation, they are exposed to natural bacteria and yeasts that are allowed to feed on the starch and sugar in the food to create lactic acid. This creates numerous beneficial digestive enzymes, B vitamins, multi-probiotic strains, and omega-3 fatty acids. Fermentation not only preserves the nutrients in the food but also helps break down the food into a more digestible form.

While you can always add these foods to your daily diet, you also have the option of taking a digestive enzyme supplement.

Benefits of Plant-Based Digestive Enzymes

When you opt to supplement with digestive enzymes to ensure your body has all that it needs, you have two primary sources to choose from. They are:

Animal- Based Enzymes

Animal-based digestive enzymes, which may also be referred to as pancreatic enzymes, are found in the pancreas, small intestine, and stomach of bovine or porcine sources.

a cow standing in a field of flowersPlant-Based Enzymes

Plant-based enzymes are extracted from certain types of bacteria and fungi that are found in fruits and vegetables, particularly papaya and pineapple. Favored by vegetarians, they are extremely efficient in breaking down carbohydrates, fats, and protein.

Animal-based digestive enzymes are limited in where they can work within the digestive tract. They are only able to function at high pH levels, making them much less efficient at aiding digestion. On the other hand, plant-based enzymes are functional over a range of pH levels and temperatures, meaning they are able to function well throughout your entire digestive system.

In an effort to develop animal-based enzymes that can survive in the stomach, manufacturers will often add an enteric coating. As a result, the food you have eaten may have already been absorbed in a poorly digested state before the enzymes are released from their enteric coating, allowing them to work. 

Plant-based digestive enzymes are able to start working much more quickly, allowing your food plenty of time to be well digested before it enters your small intestines. This greatly improves the chances of nutrients being absorbed and used as nutrition.

a pot of food with a fork

Finally, plant-based animal enzymes can be more concentrated than animal-based enzymes. As a result, you will require fewer plant-based capsules or tablets to get the same digestive benefits. Overall, plant-based digestive enzyme supplements have the ability to work anywhere, start working much sooner, and require you to take less than their animal-based counterparts.

Choosing the Best Digestive Enzyme Supplement

When you start to look for digestive enzyme supplements, you will quickly realize that there are numerous options available. To help you narrow down your selection and choose the one that best fits your specific needs, keep these tips in mind.

Start by looking at the type of supplement. As discussed above, you can choose from both animal and plant-based supplements. The easiest way to do this is by looking for a supplement that states it is “Vegetarian” or “Vegan.” Consider what you have learned to determine which one is right for you. Keep in mind that plant-based enzymes not only start to work much sooner but also work throughout your digestive system.

Examine what enzymes it contains and their strength/potency. For optimal benefits, you will want to be sure and select a supplement that includes multiple enzymes. Specifically, look for one that has proteases, lipases, and amylases. 

Opt for one that also includes probiotics. Digestive enzymes and pre and probiotic supplements work synergistically to support digestion.

| Related: Top 11 Probiotic Strains And Why They Are So Important |

The Bottom Line

Enzymes are important to digestive and overall health. They play an essential role in digestion and nutrient absorption and support healthy cognitive and immune responses. For overall well-being, make sure digestive enzymes and probiotics are part of your daily routine. Overall health starts with digestive health, and this starts with digestive enzymes.