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What are digestive enzymes?

Reviewed by Dr. Amber Hayden, DO

Digestive enzymes are special proteins your body makes to help break down the foods you eat into smaller, absorbable nutrients. When digestive enzymes are in short supply, your body cannot fully digest or absorb nutrients in food.

woman with healthy digestive enzyme function enjoying what she’s eating in her kitchen

This can lead to uncomfortable digestive symptoms but it can also cause problems with overall health. If you can’t get these important nutrients your body needs for healthy functioning, they will pass through your system unused.

Trouble with digestive enzymes? Some questions to ask:

  • Has your digestion felt “off” or abnormal?
  • Do you have gas, bloating and/or reflux every day?
  • Do you experience frequent diarrhea or constipation?
  • Have you noticed changes in the color and/or texture of your stools?
  • Has milk or pasta become a “trigger” food for digestive symptoms?

If you’re experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms, you could have a digestive enzyme imbalance. Knowing more about what these important enzymes do, can make it easier to ensure your body is getting enough of them for proper digestion.

Digestive enzymes help your body absorb nutrients

Whether you eat a piece of bread, an apple, or a bowl of ice cream, your body has to turn that food into individual nutrients that it can take in and use for energy. During this digestive process, different digestive enzymes are produced to target specific molecules in foods.

For example, the enzyme lactase is responsible for breaking down the milk sugar lactose. If you are not making enough of this enzyme (or not making it at all), you may be unable to digest milk or dairy products. This is what is commonly referred to as lactose intolerance.

Your body makes plenty of other digestive enzymes and each one works on a certain type of nutrient molecule. These include:

  • Amylase: splits starches and sugars into glucose, a type of sugar we can absorb.
  • Protease: breaks down proteins into amino acids.
  • Lipase: breaks down fats into absorbable components.
  • Maltase: converts certain sugars in grains into glucose.
  • Dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV): breaks down casein and gluten.

The digestive process begins as soon as you put something in your mouth: your saliva contains amylase and other digestive enzymes that break down starch and other simple carbohydrates. Think about a sweet treat that seems to “melt in your mouth” — that sensation is partially due to the action of amylase!

When food enters the stomach, your stomach acid, hydrochloric acid (HCL), and the digestive enzyme pepsin, continue breaking down foods, especially proteins. The big wave of digestive enzyme action takes place in the small intestine. You can’t notice it, but when you start eating, certain hormones send a signal to the pancreas to produce enzymes.

As food enters the small intestine, an enzyme-packed pancreatic juice is released to help finish the job of freeing up nutrient molecules. Nutrients are then absorbed through the walls of your small intestine, and into the blood stream.

Food that is not digested typically moves on to the large intestine where it eventually forms a stool and is excreted. For example, the human body does not produce an enzyme that can digest plant cell walls. Undigested plant material — known better as fiber — always ends up in the large intestine.

How to support digestive enzyme production

The easiest ways to check for problems with your digestive enzymes is to examine your stools. Do you often see light-colored, foul smelling, loose and/or floating stools, or greenish stools? These are signs that your body is not producing enough digestive enzymes. (For example, floating stools may indicate the presence of undigested fats.)

There are a number of hidden factors that can lead to inadequacies in digestive enzymes, including:

  • Leaky gut
  • Inflammation from food sensitivities (i.e., gluten)
  • Toxins
  • Chronic stress
  • Genetics
  • Aging

If you have suspicions about your body ability’s to produce enzymes, we recommend working with a functional medicine practitioner or naturopathic doctor. This process can help you understand which specific enzymes are being affected, as well as your options for supporting enzyme production or handling any enzyme deficiency or malabsorption issue.

On your own, you can try one of these natural remedies:

1. Replace specific enzymes. If you know you are lactose intolerant, try taking lactase in supplement form, and your symptoms of lactose intolerance may recede.

2. Provide general digestive enzyme supplementation support. Take a high-quality digestive enzyme with every meal and monitor your results over a few days. Look for enzyme supplements that contain bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapple juice and in the pineapple stem, and papain, a powerful digestive enzyme extracted from the papaya fruit. Your digestive symptoms may resolve and the appearance of your stools may normalize normal after using enzymes.

3. Get enough magnesium. As an essential nutrient, the mineral magnesium is considered a “co-enzyme,” because it is necessary for proper enzyme function within the body. Since most of us don’t get enough magnesium through diet alone, consider taking a high-quality magnesium supplement to naturally support the action of your own digestive enzymes.

Let your digestive enzymes take good care of you

It’s true that digestion is at the foundation of your health. New research on supplementing with digestive enzymes shows promising results, ranging from helping with celiac disease to improving the emotional response, general behavior and gastrointestinal symptoms in children with autism.

Paying attention to your digestive enzymes can be an important step towards resolving nagging digestive symptoms and upgrading your ability to absorb and use nutrients.

When you start absorbing more of the nutrients in your food, you also might notice that other health issues — like constant fatigue, or dull and dry skin and hair — disappear. When the nourishment you take in finally ends up where it’s needed — it’s clear that gut health = good health!


Grossmann, Kayla. “Digestive Health: 7 Ways to Balanced Enzymes” Radiant Life Blog – https://blog.radiantlifecatalog.com/bid/64988/Digestive-Health-7-Ways-to-Balanced-Enzymes

Ianiro, Gianluca et al. “Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases.” Current Drug Metabolism 17.2 (2016): 187–193. PMC. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4923703/

Freuman, Tamara D. “Digestive Enzymes: Help or Hype?” US News & World Report. April 23, 2013.




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Last Updated: October 13, 2023
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