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What Are Digestive Enzymes?
You may have heard that digestive enzymes are important to your digestive health. You may also be wondering, what is a digestive enzyme? The basic enzyme definition is that enzymes are catalysts in living organisms that help create and regulate chemical reactions in the body. Digestive enzymes are naturally occurring enzymes that help break down food so we can soak up nutrients. Learn more below.
The Role of Enzymes in Digestion
Enzymes play a role in breaking down undigested food by helping it move faster through the digestive tract, and allowing your body to absorb nutrients easier. They are a key component of your digestive health.
There are many different digestive enzymes but three main kinds of digestive enzymes help digestion: lipases break down fats; proteases break down proteins; amylases break down carbohydrates. Several organs in your digestive system are responsible for enzyme production: salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, liver, and small intestine.
There are two basic types of enzymes that are important for your digestion: digestive enzymes and pancreatic enzymes.
Pancreatic Enzymes Versus Digestive Enzymes
Many of the enzymes used for the digestion of food are produced by the pancreas. Not surprisingly, these are known as pancreatic enzymes. Technically they are also digestive enzymes. Enzymes produced by the pancreas help break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
However, a number of other digestive enzymes are also produced throughout the digestive system. For example, digestion actually starts in the mouth with the production of an enzyme known as amylase. Amylase in your saliva helps start breaking down undigested food, especially sugars, starches, and carbohydrates. Once food reaches the stomach, the digestive enzyme pepsin is produced. Food continues to move through the small intestine and into the large intestine or colon. Along the way, the gall bladder, liver, and pancreas all play a part in helping the body break down food with digestive enzymes responsible for much of your digestive health.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
There are a number of enzymes involved in maintaining your digestive health. These digestive enzymes break down the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates in your food into smaller parts, “unlocking” nutrients so your body can absorb them easier.
As food moves through your digestive tract, enzymes continue reducing your food into smaller compounds including amino acids, fatty acids, simple sugars, nucleic acids (instrumental in DNA), and cholesterol. Your body can then absorb these nutrients to maintain your health.
Some key digestive enzymes include:
Who Should Take Digestive Enzymes?
If you have trouble digesting your food and absorbing nutrients (known as malabsorption), digestive enzyme supplements could help improve your digestive health. Individuals with digestive diseases can often benefit from taking a digestive enzyme supplement.
Some people’s digestive systems don’t produce enough digestive enzymes, which is known as enzyme deficiency. There are also conditions related to difficulties with specific enzymes, including food sensitivities and food intolerances. For example, someone who is lactose intolerant, which is due to a problem digesting dairy products because they contain milk sugar (lactose), may have a lactase deficiency.
The typical American diet tends to be high-fat with lots of sugar and processed food. Plus many people are under a lot of stress and don’t get enough exercise. These foods can be difficult to digest, leading to a variety of digestive problems. High levels of stress can also cause problems with digestion.
More detail is given below on several of the more common digestive diseases that result from problems with enzyme production. Oftentimes certain digestive enzyme supplements will help relieve symptoms of some of these diseases.
If you have poor digestion, such as ongoing constipation or other digestive issues or a more serious digestive disease, you may want to seek medical advice from your healthcare practitioner to discover which digestive enzymes and enzyme products might help you.
Some of the more common digestive diseases that are affected by digestive enzymes include:
Leaky Gut (Leaky Gut Syndrome)
Gaps may occur in the intestinal lining that allow undigested food, bacteria, toxins, and germs to leak into our bodies. This is known as intestinal permeability or leaky gut and it’s often linked with certain dietary factors, such as eating gluten, food allergies, or gut-related autoimmune disorders.
These leaks can cause inflammation and changes in our “gut flora,” also known as the microbiome. Unpleasant symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, headaches and more can occur. Serious health conditions can also result from long-term leaky gut. Digestive enzyme supplements can help repair leaky gut and improve absorption of nutrients.
Want to learn more about leaky gut? Check out this related article on the Top 10 Leaky Gut Supplements (Plus a Leaky Gut Diet plan)
Digestive problems can sometimes be the result of celiac disease. This autoimmune disease is genetic and it can cause different symptoms in different people, in the digestive tract or in other areas of the body.
People with this disease are unable to digest the protein gluten. If they eat foods that contain wheat, rye, or barley, or other glutenous cereal grains, their small intestine will become damaged. Gluten can also be found in some vitamins, supplements, toothpaste, and other products so read labels carefully. A gluten-free diet relieves symptoms of celiac disease. 
Some people may not have celiac disease yet they have a food sensitivity to gluten that affects their gut health. For people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), research has shown that certain combinations of digestive enzymes such as peptidase and protease derived from papaya and microorganisms can help improve gluten-induced symptoms of NCGS. 
As one of two major chronic diseases of the bowel, known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease that causes irritation and inflammation of the digestive tract. Symptoms of Crohn’s disease include diarrhea, cramping, and abdominal pain. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes Crohn’s, but research has shown a relationship between an enzyme known as urease and the disease. [3, 4]
Similar to Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis is also under the IBD umbrella. It is also an autoimmune disease. If someone has ulcerative colitis, their immune system thinks that food and bacteria in the intestinal tract are invaders or foreign substances so it creates an autoimmune response. This results in inflammation of the small intestine and open sores forming in the intestinal lining, which ooze pus and mucus and cause pain. Crohn’s can affect any part of the digestive tract, including all of the layers of the bowel wall, but ulcerative colitis only affects the colon or bowel. Ulcerative colitis causes blood in the stool, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fatigue. Like Crohn’s disease, there appears to be a relationship between the disease and certain enzymes. Some research has shown that digestive enzymes can help improve symptoms of IBD. [5, 6]
Irritable bowel syndrome
Not to be confused with IBD, irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a group of symptoms that cause pain and changes in bowel movements without resulting in damage to the digestive tract. But IBS is also a symptom of IBD.
The cause of IBS isn’t understood. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, or both. Dietary changes such as eliminating gluten and adding more fiber seem to help. Like IBD, some research has shown promise for relieving IBS symptoms with digestive enzymes. 
Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas and chronic pancreatitis is long-term inflammation of the organ that results in permanent damage. This damage can cause problems with pancreatic enzyme production and insulin production, as well as malabsorption of nutrients. People with chronic pancreatitis often lose weight, develop vitamin deficiencies and diarrhea, become malnourished and develop diabetes.
Chronic pancreatitis is often the result of long-term alcohol abuse, but it may sometimes result from experiencing several bouts of acute pancreatitis among other causes such as genetic predisposition, a blockage of the ducts that drains the pancreatic enzymes from the pancreas, high levels of blood triglycerides, and in some cases, autoimmune pancreatitis develops where the individual’s immune system attacks their pancreas. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Supplemental digestive enzymes can help improve digestion and nutrient malabsorption in people who suffer from chronic pancreatitis. 
If your pancreas doesn’t make enough digestive enzymes, you may have pancreatic insufficiency. This condition often develops as a result of chronic pancreatitis. Because your pancreas is not producing enough enzymes, your body is unable to properly absorb enough vitamins and minerals. This results in malnutrition and symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea. Supplementing with digestive enzymes can help improve symptoms. 
Certain genetic disorders conditions known as metabolic disorders can cause an enzyme deficiency. An enzyme deficiency results in malabsorption of nutrients as well as a buildup of toxins in the body. There are hundreds of metabolic disorders that can result in enzyme deficiencies. 
Low Stomach Acid
Hypochlorhydria, or low stomach acid, means that an individual does not produce enough hydrochloric acid in their stomach. Hydrochloric acid helps to break down food in the stomach, along with several digestive enzymes. This condition is often common in older people as the stomach typically produces less acid as a result of aging. It may also be due to other causes such as stress, bacterial infection, medications, stomach surgery, and zinc deficiency due to malabsorption. Symptoms may include bloating, gas, diarrhea, hair loss, heartburn, upset stomach, among others. Certain supplements such as an HCL supplement or a pepsin digestive enzyme supplement can help improve symptoms. 
Best sources of digestive enzymes
The best sources of digestive enzymes can be found in food sources and digestive enzyme supplements. Plus, many high-quality digestive enzyme supplements are also derived from or contain compounds from food sources. Enzyme supplementation with the right enzyme blend may be just what you need to improve your digestion. These supplements typically don’t cause side effects, but check the ingredients to make sure there isn’t anything that might cause an allergic reaction if you have any food sensitivities.
The best sources of foods that contain digestive enzymes include: 
If you’re struggling with digestive disorders such as ongoing constipation or certain health conditions as a result of poor digestion, you may want to consider digestive enzyme supplements. Digestive enzymes are key to proper digestion and overall health and wellbeing. Without proper digestive enzymes, you may suffer from malnourishment due to malabsorption of nutrients, among other unpleasant and difficult symptoms. Seek medical advice from your healthcare professional if you’re wondering if you could benefit from digestive enzyme supplements.
- Digestive enzymes are key to proper digestion and overall health and wellbeing.
- Digestive enzymes are naturally occurring enzymes that help break down food so we can soak up nutrients.
- There are many different digestive enzymes that break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
- If you have trouble digesting your food and absorbing nutrients (malabsorption), digestive enzyme supplements could help improve your digestive health.
- Individuals with digestive diseases can often benefit from taking a digestive enzyme supplement.