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 sufficient digestive enzymes, the body is unable to digest food particles properly, which may lead to food intolerance.

18 minute read

Last Updated September 20, 2021

What Are Digestive Enzymes? | 1MD

If you are one of the 60 to 70 million people who struggle with a digestive disease, digestive enzymes may be the answer to ending your discomfort (1). If you are not familiar with digestive enzymes and the powerful effect they can have on your overall health, the information below features everything you need to know, including what they are, how they work, how they help relieve certain health conditions, choosing the best 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, so you can get moving, to a healthier life.

What are Digestive Enzymes?

Primarily made and secreted by your pancreas and small intestines, digestive enzymes are special proteins that act as catalysts to speed up 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. This is crucial because your digestive system is unable to absorb food. Instead, your digestive system absorbs nutrients.

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:


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.


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


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 is responsible for breaking down cellulose into simple sugars. Your body is unable to produce cellulose on its own (2). Instead, it is naturally produced by a variety of symbiotic bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. This digestive enzyme can be found in most raw foods, including broccoli and apples.


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


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


Produced in your pancreas, phospholipase converts phospholipids into fatty acids.


Produced in your intestines, aminopeptidase breaks down peptides into amino acids.

Go Back To the Top

How Digestive Enzymes Help Absorption

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


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 degrade 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.

Small 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 on to the nutrients it needs so they can be 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.

Without digestive enzymes, your body would not be able to digest any food 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.

Go Back To the Top

Why is Digestive Health Important?

When your body is not producing a sufficient amount of digestive enzymes, your digestive health will become compromised, wreaking havoc throughout your entire body. Referred to by some researchers as the “second brain,” the health of your digestive system plays a crucial role in your overall well being. In fact, your digestive health can have significant effects on everything from your immunity to your mood and memory, which is why it is so important. For example, your digestive system:

Serves as the residence for around 70% of your immune system (3). When your digestive health is compromised, so is your immune system, leaving you more susceptible to everything from acute illnesses, such as the cold or flu, to chronic conditions, including autoimmune disorders, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. When your digestive health is well maintained, your body is better able to fight off harmful bacteria and yeast.

It also serves as the residence for about 80 to 90% of your body’s serotonin (4). Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, allows your brain cells and nervous system cells to communicate with each other and can affect mood, memory, social behavior, appetite, and sleep patterns. Serotonin is also a key component of intestinal contractions. When your digestive health isn’t up to par, serotonin levels can drop, leaving you depressed, forgetful, and irritable, as well as more likely to develop certain diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and cardiovascular disease.

Go Back To the Top

How do Digestive Enzymes Help?

While you already know how important the role digestive enzymes play in nutrient absorption is, you may not realize that they also prove to be beneficial for anyone suffering from a variety of digestive disorders. In addition to relieving digestive system discomfort and improving immune function, specific conditions that often benefit from the use of digestive enzyme supplements include Acid Reflux or Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD):

Acid Reflux and GERD

Often referred to as heartburn, acid reflux and GERD can be uncomfortable and cause long-term damage if not treated. The root cause of acid reflux and GERD is a dysfunctional lower esophageal sphincter, which often is the result of food not digesting properly as it moves through your digestive tract (5). Instead, of closing completely when food passes through it, it leaves room for acid to move up from the lower digestive system. Fortunately, by taking a high-quality digestive enzyme supplement before each meal, sufferers can ensure their food is fully digested, nutrients are properly absorbed, and their esophageal sphincter is able to close tightly.

Lactose Intolerance

If you are one of the 65% of adults who suffer from lactose intolerance, you may be shocked to learn that this condition is usually caused by your body drastically reducing the production of the digestive enzyme, lactase, after infancy (6). Without lactase, your body finds it almost impossible to break down the lactose found in dairy products. While there is no cure for true lactose intolerance, taking a lactase supplement is often helpful as a temporary measure or when you are planning to eat a meal filled with dairy products.

Pancreatic Insufficiency

Pancreatic insufficiency results when your pancreas simply can’t produce or secrete enough digestive enzymes to effectively break down food. This may be caused by acute or chronic pancreatitis, gallstones, or pancreatic cancer. Adding a digestive enzyme supplement to your daily routine has long been the treatment of choice for anyone suffering from pancreatic insufficiency because it is almost always successful and well-tolerated (7).

Casein or Gluten Intolerance

When your body is lacking digestive enzymes, it can find it almost impossible to completely break down casein (a protein found in dairy products) and gluten (the primary protein found in wheat), resulting in a variety of significant health issues, such as inflammation and abdominal pain. In addition, a great deal of time and money is currently being used to study the link between casein and glucose intolerance and the development of neurobiological disorders, including ADD, autism, and schizophrenia (8). Multiple studies, including one reported by Klaire Labs and ProThera have shown that the consumption of a supplemental digestive enzyme called dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV) can make it easier for the body to break down casein and gluten, allowing those with an intolerance to see a substantial improvement in their abilities and behaviors (9).

Celiac Disease

Although digestive enzymes produced in your pancreas try hard to break gluten down into amino acids, many of these gluten proteins are actually resistant to enzymes, allowing the protein to stay almost completely intact as it travels through the digestive system (10). This can result in celiac disease, which has typically been treated by eliminating all gluten from a sufferer’s diet. However, scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, NY are working to re-engineer a natural digestive enzyme that can effectively break down gluten. Until researchers are successful, the only way to safely manage celiac disease is by eliminating it completely from your diet, according to the FDA (11).

| Related: Gluten-Free Soba Noodle Salad Recipe |

Colon Health

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 has proven to help keep your colon healthy by working to ensure your body has digested these foods to the best of its ability before it meets the colon to keep toxins from building up in there. Supplementation is important because researchers have proven that your ability to produce enough digestive enzymes to complete digestion lessens with age (12).

Go Back To the Top

Foods that Boost Digestive Function

There are a number of foods that can enhance your body’s 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. When foods are cooked, the high temperature tends to destroy these digestive enzymes (13). With that being said, the top foods to eat that will either boost your digestive enzyme production or facilitate digestion themselves are:


This exotic fruit, known for its distinct aroma and buttery sweetness, is a great source of papain, an enzyme that has been deemed to be one of the most effective for breaking down meats, as well as other proteins (14). Papain does this by hacking its way through complex proteins’ peptide bonds and breaking them down into individual amino acids.


Also an exotic fruit, pineapple is filled with enzymes, particularly bromelain, that help boost 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 excessive inflammation, certain types of tumor growth, and too much coagulation in the blood (14).


Mango is an excellent source of amylase, which just happens to be the digestive enzyme that is needed to break down carbohydrates and starches into simple sugars. Mangos, too, offer plenty of additional health benefits, thanks to the numerous antioxidants it contains (15). These benefits include the ability to protect against multiple diseases, including liver disorders, various types of cancer, and diabetes.

Raw Honey

The bees that make the honey actually introduce digestive enzymes into it, including proteases, amylase, and sucrase (16). 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 (17). 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. You can learn how to ferment vegetables in your own home here (18).

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

Go Back To the Top

Proven Benefits of Plant-Based Digestive Enzymes

When you opt to supplement with digestive enzymes to ensure your body has more than enough for adequate absorption, 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 (19). Enzyme supplements derived from animals have the same possible contaminants of any other genetically modified non-organic animal by-product (20).

Plant-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.

Researchers have found that 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 because they are completely ineffective in your stomach (21). On the other hand, plant-based enzyme supplements 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 with 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 (22). 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.

Finally, plant-based animal enzymes can be more concentrated than animal-based enzymes (23). 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.

Go Back To the Top

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 the maximum 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 are essential partners in digestion, yet we often lack both in our diet. Your health will definitely benefit from you taking the two together.

Examine the ingredients. Here, you will actually be looking for what is NOT listed as an ingredient. For example, you’ll want to avoid supplements with synthetic fillers, such as rice starch, apple pectin, and magnesium stearate. Other ingredients to avoid include preservatives, additives, artificial ingredients, sugar, gluten, dairy, and salt. On the label, look for “100% non-GMO” to ensure you are not consuming any genetically modified organisms.

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

Factor in quality and price. Even if you don’t know anything about supplement manufacturers, you can still judge quality. In addition to reading reviews online, stay away from the least expensive one on the shelf. Cheap supplements of any kind are almost always nothing more than a waste of money.

It is also a good idea to shy away from conventional drug stores and grocery stores because they usually don’t carry the highest quality products.

Go Back To the Top

The Bottom Line

Enzymes are vital to human well-being. They play a critical role in digestion and nutrient absorption, in addition to faster cognitive and immune response, cellular detoxification, and more. These crucial human systems battle for the right to use enzymes throughout our bodies.

Now that you have a better idea of just how important digestive enzymes, it may be time to implement an effective digestive enzyme regimen, so you begin to reap all the benefits of a properly working digestive system.