What Are Digestive Enzymes And Why They’re Important

Every cell in the body has 1000s of enzymes, the way they function is as the catalysts for chemical reactions in the bod. They do this by binding to other substances which we generally refer to as substrates.

Enzymes cover a whole host of functions, and are essential in everything from DNA replication right through to detoxing the body. They’re even involved in the breakdown of water, so they’re pretty much so functionally life wouldn’t exist without enzymes.

But, today we’ll be looking at those that most people think of most often when we talk about enzymes and that is the ones that break down our food.

About Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes play a crucial role in our digestive system, helping to break down the foods we eat and absorb essential nutrients.

However, certain health conditions can interfere with the production of digestive enzymes, leading to poor digestion and malnutrition. In such cases, replacement digestive enzymes can be used to ensure proper digestion and nutrient absorption. [1]

Digestive enzymes can also be used for a variety of other functions as different enzymes, to put it simply produce different outputs. For example, some breakdown proteins in a way that they produce by products which reduce inflammation. [2] This is just one example, and they’re capable of a whole host of other effects.

Types Of Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes are proteins produced by our body, primarily in the pancreas, to help break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins from the food we consume. These enzymes are essential for the absorption of nutrients and the maintenance of optimal health. Without digestive enzymes, the nutrients in our food go to waste.

There are several types of digestive enzymes, each responsible for breaking down a specific macronutrient:

Amylase: This enzyme breaks down carbohydrates, or starches, into sugar molecules. Insufficient amylase can lead to diarrhea. [3]

Lipase: Lipase works with liver bile to break down fats and cholesterol. If there is a deficiency of lipase, it can result in a lack of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K. [4]

Protease: Protease breaks down proteins into amino acids. It also helps keep harmful bacteria, yeast, and protozoa out of the intestines. A shortage of protease can lead to allergies or toxicity in the intestines. [5]

These are the overall groupings of digestive enzymes we then typically have subgroupings. For example, there are 6 types of Protease: aspartic, glutamic, metalloproteases, cysteine, serine, and threonine proteases.

From that point we have the specific family groupings like bromelain, [6] (an enzyme family found in pineapples and other plants from this family) which is often used to treat inflammation. Which may sound odd, but we have to consider exactly what proteins the enzyme breaks down and what it turns them into.

N.B. There’s a bit more to this as well once we start considering animal enzymes that allow them to break down fiber efficiently, which humans don’t have for the most part. 

The Role of Digestive Enzymes in the Body

When our body does not naturally produce enough digestive enzymes, it can affect our ability to break down the foods we eat and absorb nutrients. This can result in various gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, cramping, gassiness, and diarrhea. [7] Moreover, inadequate digestion can lead to malnutrition, even if we consume a nutritious diet. [8]

Replacement digestive enzymes can be used to mimic the natural pancreatic enzymes and aid in the digestion process. By taking these enzymes just before meals, they can effectively break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins from the food, allowing for proper absorption of nutrients. This helps prevent malabsorption and related digestive discomforts. [9]

However, it is essential to take replacement digestive enzymes with food for them to be effective. The enzymes need to be present in the stomach and small intestine when food is being digested. In some cases, the dosage may need to be adjusted, such as taking half the dose at the start of a large meal and the rest halfway through.

Conditions Requiring Digestive Enzymes

There are several health conditions that may require the use of digestive enzymes to ensure proper digestion and nutrient absorption. These conditions include:

Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI): EPI occurs when there is a lack of digestive enzymes due to pancreatic dysfunction. It can lead to poor digestion and malnutrition. Digestive enzyme replacement therapy (PERT) is commonly used to manage EPI. [10]

Chronic Pancreatitis: Inflammation of the pancreas can impair the production of digestive enzymes, leading to digestive problems. Digestive enzyme supplements may be used to support digestion in these cases. [11]

Celiac Disease: Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. Digestive enzymes, specifically gluten-degrading enzymes, have been studied as potential treatments for celiac disease, although their benefits are still unclear. [12]

Lactose Intolerance: Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Digestive enzyme supplements containing lactase can help individuals with lactose intolerance digest lactose-containing foods. [13]

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): IBD includes conditions like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, which cause inflammation in the digestive tract. Digestive enzyme supplements have shown promise in improving the quality of life for people with IBD. [14]

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): IBS is a common gastrointestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. Digestive enzymes have been studied for their potential to alleviate IBS symptoms. [15]

Pancreatic Surgery and Cystic Fibrosis: Individuals who have undergone pancreatic surgery or have cystic fibrosis may have impaired pancreatic function, leading to a deficiency in digestive enzymes. Digestive enzyme replacement therapy may be necessary in these cases. [16]

Interesting Research Ongoing For The Health Benefits Of Digestive Enzymes

Digestive Enzymes For Arthritis

Currently there’s quite a lot of research going into bromelain [17] as a treatment for arthritis pain and the dietary enzyme does seem to reduce inflammation markers, it’s currently available in a lot of over the counter joint supplements. Often sold as proteolytic enzymes for arthritis, there are a few options available aside from bromelain, although this is the most well tested so far. Some other protease or proteoltytic enzymes have been researched and shown to have some effects in animal studies for example chymotrypsin, trypsin and serratiopeptidase. [18]

Proteolytic Enzymes In Bodybuilding

It shouldn’t really be too much of a surprise that enzymes which help you break down protein would be considered as an option for people looking to build muscle. There aren’t enough studies to say anything conclusive, but the initial research is positive in reducing time to recover after working out. It also seems to be beneficial for people consuming large amounts of protein in the form of supplements like whey allowing the body to use it more efficiently improving muscle tissue hypertrophy (growth) although the research is limited. [19,20]

Lipase Inhibitors Weight Loss

Lipase inhibitors such as orlistat are designed to stop lipase from working and thus stop your body from actually absorbing fat. [21] This can help if someone is overweight due to a high fat diet, but not if they’re simply overeating. Unfortunately, these have often been marked as a solution to weight loss in general and are available over the counter in some countries. 

They generally tend to be less effective than fullness simulators like glucomannan (which swells 50X lager in the stomach) for most people if they’re not following a very high fat diet. That is assuming that people simply don’t eat through the pain, or take it straight after eating, [22] which was the case in many of the negative studies. As you’d expect, you ideally need to take it 30 mins before you start making your meal. 

Meaning lipase inhibitors may well be better for severe cases of obesity, but less useful for people not far away from healthy BMI. Both are commonly available in over the counter weight loss aids.

It is important to consult with a healthcare provider to determine if digestive enzyme supplements are appropriate for your specific condition and to discuss the optimal dosage for your needs.

Natural Sources of Digestive Enzymes

In addition to taking digestive enzyme supplements, certain foods contain natural digestive enzymes that can aid in digestion. These include:

  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Ginger
  • Honey
  • Kefir, Yoghurt, Cheese
  • Kiwi
  • Mangos
  • Papayas
  • Pineapples
  • Sauerkraut
  • Pickled foods

Supplementing your diet with these foods may provide additional digestive support and promote optimal digestion. [23]

Choosing Digestive Enzyme Supplements

Digestive enzyme supplements are available in various forms and formulations. It is important to choose the right supplement based on your specific needs and preferences. Here are some considerations:

Prescription Enzyme Replacement Therapy (PERT): Individuals with severe conditions such as exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) may require prescription enzyme replacement therapy. PERT products are usually made from pig pancreases and are subject to FDA approval and regulation. [24]

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Enzyme Supplements: OTC enzyme supplements are available without a prescription and can be found in health stores or online. These supplements may be derived from animals or plants such as molds, yeasts, fungi, or fruits. [25]  However, it is important to note that OTC supplements are not regulated like medications, and the ingredients and dosages may vary from batch to batch.

 As a result it’s important to chose a company that produces regular 3rd party testing certificates. Generally these aren’t made public, but here at Center TRT we request them before recommending any products. 

When choosing an enzyme supplement, it is important to consider factors such as the specific enzymes included, the dosage, and any potential allergens. Consulting with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian can help you select the most appropriate supplement for your needs.

Should I Take Digestive Enzymes With Food?

Digestive enzymes don't have to be taken with what we may consider food although it is advised. Not all digestive enzymes follow this pattern, but it's a good rule of thumb. In general will want to have to be taken with something that they can react to in the stomach. 

For example, papin, bromelain, and pepsin are often found in greens powders, which is fine as they can react to the greens in the powder, even if we may not percieve a greens powder as "food". 

If they're in a capsule you'd want to take them about 10 to 20 minutes before eating, so the capsule has time to breakdown and then the enzymes can react with what you've just eaten. 

There won't be any side effects from taking digestive enzymes incorrectly, as some will simply be wasted and absorbed into the blood stream. But, they definitely won't be as effective.

Potential Side Effects of Digestive Enzymes

Most digestive enzyme supplements are safe when taken at recommended doses. However, like any supplement, there is a risk of side effects. Common side effects of digestive enzyme supplementation include constipation, nausea, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. If you experience signs of an allergic reaction, such as swelling or difficulty breathing, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. [26,27]

It is worth noting that digestive enzymes may not work effectively if the environment in the small intestine is too acidic or if the dosage and ratio of enzymes are not appropriate. Additionally, certain medications can interfere with digestive enzymes, so it is essential to inform your healthcare provider about any medications or supplements you are currently taking.

If you are experiencing frequent or persistent digestive symptoms or suspect a deficiency in digestive enzymes, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and guidance on the use of digestive enzyme supplements.

Digestive Enzymes Benefits

Digestive enzymes play a critical role in our digestive system, ensuring the proper breakdown and absorption of nutrients from the foods we consume. In certain health conditions, the production of digestive enzymes may be impaired, leading to digestive discomfort and malnutrition. Digestive enzyme supplements, whether prescription or over-the-counter, can help support digestion and nutrient absorption in these cases. There are also a lot of potentially interesting further applications, and whilst some of these are pretty well researched at this point more is needed for the results to be conclusive. 

However, it is important to consult with a healthcare provider to determine the appropriate use and dosage of these supplements for your specific needs. Additionally, incorporating natural sources of digestive enzymes into your diet can further support optimal digestion and overall health.

Dr Mark Watson is the founder of Center TRT, having graduated from stamford more than 20 years ago, he is an expert in the field of supplemental health, focusing on long term benefits of complimenary treatment. View Profile


1 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK548796/

2 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7693344/

3 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557738/

4 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537346/

5 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6364759/

6 - https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/bromelain

7 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6910206/

8 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1176288/

9 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK548796/

10 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555926/

11 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6432881/

12 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7400306/

13 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK532285/

14 - https://www.niddk.nih.gov/news/archive/2017/bacterial-enzyme-implicated-inflammatory-bowel-disease

15 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6910206/

16 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2798169/

17 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC538506/

18 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2852049/

19 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7438350/

20 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2500001/

21 - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0753332220305060

22 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3892933/

23 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/

24 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6858980/

25 - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25103998/

26 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/

27 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8431097/

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