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Digestive enzymes | What they are for? Where can you find them?
Digestive enzymes What they are for? Where can you find them?

Digestive enzymes
What they are for? Where can you find them?

Date: July 09, 2020

We often hear people say "I eat little and fatten" or "as soon as I touch carbs I get fatter" and other such phrases. Beyond the metabolic-hormonal disturbances, at times, these nuisances are an alarm signal for a lack of digestive enzymes. The purpose of this article is to clarify why "we are what we digest", rather than what we eat. If digestion is effective, in fact, we will have a correct absorption of nutrients and, to achieve this result digestive enzymes play a fundamental role.

What are digestive enzymes?


The pancreas, the place of production of many digestive enzymes.


The role of digestive enzymes is mainly to act as catalysts for specific fundamental reactions in our bodies. Essentially, enzymes help to break down large molecules into smaller portions to be better absorbed and allow the body to survive.

The duodenum (the first part and shorter portion of the small intestine) is a rather "busy" area. From the stomach comes what was extracted from the first digestive processes and we find amino acids derived from proteins, fatty acids and cholesterol from simple fats, and sugars from carbohydrates. All macronutrients are reduced to smaller molecules so that they can be transported in the bloodstream and activate the metabolism and other vital functions.

Effects of digestive enzymes

So, what do these enzymes do and what are they? These are protein molecules that work by combining with a specific substance to transform it into a different substance. We find them in various districts of the gastrointestinal system, from saliva to the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine. Each of them has a specific role: some break down fats, those who specialize in breaking down carbohydrates and proteins. The lack of even just one type of enzyme can create annoying disorders (such as lactose intolerance) up to real pathologies (as phenylketonuria).

The main digestive enzymes

Lipase: a pancreatic enzyme that converts triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerophosphates

Lipase: a pancreatic enzyme that converts triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerophosphates


  •  Aminopeptidase: degrades the peptides into amino acids;
  •  Lactase: converts lactose into glucose;
  •  Cholecystokinin: helps the digestion of fats and proteins;
  •  Saccharase: converts sucrose into disaccharides and monosaccharides;
  •  Maltase: converts maltose into glucose;
  •  Isomaltase: converts isomaltose.

Other important substances are pancreatic enzymes, which work in particular on fats and amino acids:

  •  Lipase: converts triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerophosphates;
  •  Amylase: converts carbohydrates into simple sugars;
  •  Elastase: degrades elastin;
  •  Trypsin: converts proteins into amino acids;
  •  Chimitripsin: converts proteins into amino acids;
  •  Nucleases: converts nucleic acids into nucleotides and nucleosides;
  •  Phosphorylase: converts phospholipids into fatty acids.

Digestive enzymes are not only useful: they are essential for digesting food and obtaining amino acids, fatty acids, cholesterol, simple sugars, and nucleic acids that help DNA formation.

Benefits of digestive enzyme supplements

papaya containing papain

Papaya, source of papain


What are digestive enzymes benefits? Without them, we cannot digest food! In addition to this fundamental function, there are several reasons why people should try to consume so many different types of fresh fruit and vegetables, naturally rich in digestive enzymes. The main benefits are:

  •  support against the stress of the gastrointestinal system;
  •  support for the digestion of macromolecules such as proteins, gluten, caseins, and lactose;
  •  help in the symptoms of gastric reflux and irritable bowel;
  •  improvement of nutrient absorption;
  •  contrast to inhibitory enzymes ("antinutrients") naturally present in foods such as peanuts, wheat germ, egg whites, nuts, seeds, legumes, and potatoes.

What are the best sources of digestive enzymes?

  •  The ones derived from fruits: pineapple (bromelain) and papaya (papain);
  •  animal sources: pancreatin;
  •  the ones derived from plants and mushrooms: probiotics.

Who should take digestive enzyme supplements?

It all depends on how our diet is based, as long as there are no pathological conditions. With a classic Western diet rich in sugars, fats, and refined foods, an "extra" help of digestive enzyme supplements - always on medical advice - could help. Let's go more specific and see how our digestion works.



Pineapple, source of bromelain


Pineapple, source of bromelain


The digestive process can be divided into six phases and begins with chewing, which sets off a cascade of mechanisms and secretions with a domino effect.

  1. Salivary amylase is the first enzyme that, in the mouth, assists the breakdown of food into its component molecules.
  2. The parietal cells of the stomach then release various acids, pepsin, and enzymes, including gastric amylase, to achieve partial digestion obtaining chyme (semi-fluid, semi-digested mass).
  3. The acids also neutralize salivary amylase, favoring the intervention of the gastric one.
  4. After about an hour, the chyme is pushed into the duodenum, where the acidity acquired in the stomach stimulates the release of the secretin hormone.
  5. The pancreas then releases hormones, bicarbonate, bile, and numerous pancreatic enzymes, including lipase, trypsin, amylase, and nuclease.
  6. Our "digestive machine", thanks to the bicarbonate, changes the acidity of the chyme in an alkaline form, allowing not only a better degradation of food but also creating a hostile environment for bacteria that possibly survived the passage from the stomach.

This process synthesis can take place effectively and smoothly if the enzyme system is healthy, otherwise careful supplementation is required.

Digestive problems and enzyme deficiency

In the case of digestive disorders such as:

  •  acid reflux,
  •  gas, bloating, bloating,
  •  irritable bowel syndrome,
  •  Crohn's disease,
  •  Ulcerative colitis,
  •  diverticula,
  •  malabsorption,
  •  diarrhea,
  •  constipation;

enzymes can help by significantly relieving the stress of the stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and small intestine in digesting proteins, starches, and fats. Enzyme deficiency can be found in several situations that are often (or seem) asymptomatic but there are some indicator signs.

  • Stool. If the stool is clear and floating (fat floats), it may be that the pancreas enzyme production system is inefficient.
  • Gastrointestinal problems. A very frequent indicator is bloating of the stomach or, after a meal after drinking milk, for example, diarrhea. Flatulence and indigestion are also indicators of a hypothetical enzyme deficiency.

Age-related problems

As time passes, among the many nuisances, those related to the gastric environment, which becomes more alkaline, may also arise. This is a limit for digestion, especially for protein. Often as we age, many of the acid reflux problems can result from low stomach acid or increasing enzyme deficiency.



Hypochlorhydria, i.e. the low acidity of gastric juices removes one of our first lines of defense because it is the normal acidity of the stomach to stop any invasion of pathogenic microbes, such as Candida yeast and Helicobacter pylori. In a stomach with an altered degree of acidity, carbs ferment producing gas and regurgitation. Beware that this problem affects not only the elderly but also young people who, in these cases, can resort to taking digestive enzyme supplements under medical advice.

Enzyme deficiency and liver disorders

Often those suffering from liver disorders can have an enzyme insufficiency. One of the most common conditions is known as an alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder that affects one in five thousand people worldwide. We then find other pathologies that seem unrelated to enzyme deficiencies but that would need attention:

  •  Chron's disease;
  •  iron or vitamin B12 deficiency;
  •  vitamin D deficiency;
  •  vitamin A deficiency

We can understand those who are in a high-calorie diet, where good digestion and efficient absorption are always very busy and solicited, so they are easily disturbed by enzyme deficiencies.

The importance of enzymes for athletes

See for example a bodybuilder under construction or an endurance athlete who has to deal with swellings, fermentations, even coming to indigestion and dysentery. The reasons why athletes are affected by these ailments are often linked to an excess of carbohydrates (compared to their real absorption capacity) or poor digestion of animal proteins, or an excessive difficulty in processing fats. To these, the integration of digestive enzymes a little before the meal (maybe three times a day) improves the digestive and absorption situation, drastically reducing the antipathetic symptoms.

Have you ever tried a digestive enzyme supplement? Tell us about your experience in the comments.


  • The Use of Digestive Enzymes in Specific Digestive Disorders A continuation of our interview with enzyme expert M. Mamadou, PhD, M. Mamadou, PhD, Natural Medicine Journal,
  • Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases, Gianluca Ianiro, Silvia Pecere, Valentina Giorgio, Antonio Gasbarrini, and Giovanni Cammarota, Curr Drug Metab. 2016 Feb; 17(2): 187–193. Published online 2016 Feb. doi: 10.2174/138920021702160114150137,

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