Types and functions of digestive enzymes.


Digestive enzymes are substances that help digest food. They are secreted (released) by the salivary glands and cells of the stomach, pancreas , and small intestine .

They do this by breaking down the large, complex molecules that make up proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into smaller ones. This allows the nutrients in these foods to be easily absorbed into the bloodstream and transported throughout the body.

Read on to learn about the different types of digestive enzymes and how they work.

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Digestive enzymes are released when:

  • Wait for food
  • Smell and taste of food.
  • Go through the digestive process

Certain foods require certain digestive enzymes to break down the specific nutrients they contain.

Several health conditions, especially those that affect the pancreas, can lead to digestive enzyme deficiencies. This is because the pancreas secretes several key enzymes.

These deficiencies can often be corrected by changing your diet. You can avoid certain foods or eat foods that contain natural digestive enzymes. You can also take over-the-counter or prescription enzyme supplements .


Each of the many different digestive enzymes targets a specific nutrient and breaks it down into a form that can eventually be absorbed. The most important digestive enzymes:

  • Amylase
  • Maltase
  • Lactase
  • Lipase
  • Proteases
  • Sucrase

Read on to learn more about the most important types of digestive enzymes.


Amylase is essential for the digestion of carbohydrates. It breaks down starch into sugar.

Amylase is secreted by both the salivary glands and the pancreas. Measurement of blood amylase levels is sometimes used to diagnose various diseases of the pancreas or other diseases of the digestive tract.

High levels of amylase in your blood may mean that you have:

Low levels of amylase can mean you have chronic pancreatitis (ongoing inflammation of the pancreas) or liver disease .


The small intestine secretes maltase, which is responsible for breaking down maltose (malt sugar) into glucose (simple sugar). The body uses glucose for energy.

During digestion, amylases partially convert starch to maltose. The enzyme maltase then converts the maltose to glucose. This sugar is then used immediately by the body or stored in the liver as glycogen for future use.


Lactase (also called lactase-florizin hydrolase ) It is an enzyme that breaks down lactose , a sugar found in dairy products. Converts lactose into simple sugars, glucose and galactose.

Lactase is produced by cells known as enterocytes that line the intestines. Indigestible lactose is fermented by bacteria in the intestines. This can lead to gas and stomach upset.


Lipase is responsible for the breakdown of fats into fatty acids and glycerin (simple sugar alcohol). It is produced in small amounts by the mouth and stomach, and in large amounts by the pancreas.


These digestive enzymes, also called peptidases, proteolytic enzymes, or proteinases , break down proteins into amino acids. They also play a role in many bodily processes, including:

  • Cellular division
  • Blood clotting
  • Immune function

Proteases are produced in the stomach and pancreas. The main ones are:

  • Pepsin : Pepsin is secreted by the stomach to break down proteins into peptides or smaller groups of amino acids. These amino acids are then absorbed or broken down in the small intestine.
  • Trypsin : Trypsin is formed when an enzyme secreted by the pancreas is activated by an enzyme in the small intestine. The trypsin then activates additional pancreatic enzymes like carboxypeptidase and chymotrypsin , which help break down the peptides.
  • Chymotrypsin : This enzyme breaks down peptides into free amino acids that can be absorbed by the intestinal wall.
  • Carboxypeptidase A : secreted by the pancreas, it breaks down peptides into individual amino acids.
  • Carboxypeptidase B : Excreted by the pancreas, it breaks down essential amino acids.


Sugar is secreted by the small intestine, where it breaks down sucrose (the sugar in table sugar) into fructose and glucose. These are simpler sugars that the body can absorb.

Sucrose is found along the intestinal villi . These are tiny, hair-like structures that line the intestines and absorb nutrients into the bloodstream.


There are many diseases that can interfere with the secretion of enough digestive enzymes to fully digest food. Some are inherited genetic diseases, while others develop over time.

Lactose intolerance

Lactose intolerance occurs when you cannot digest lactose due to insufficient lactase production in your small intestine. When you consume dairy products, you may experience:

There are several forms of lactose intolerance.

Congenital lactase deficiency

Congenital lactase deficiency (also called congenital alactasia ) is a rare inherited form of lactose intolerance. This happens when newborns cannot break down lactose in breast milk or formula. They develop severe diarrhea if they are not given a lactose-free alternative.

Congenital lactase deficiency is caused by mutations in the LCT gene, which contains instructions for the production of the enzyme lactase.

Lactase volatility

Lactase impermanence is a common type of lactose intolerance that some people develop in adulthood. It affects approximately 65% of people and is caused by decreased expression (activity) of the LCT gene. Symptoms usually appear 30 minutes to two hours after ingesting or consuming dairy products.

Most people with lactase variability retain some level of lactase activity and can continue to include small amounts of lactose in their diet. It can be cheese or yogurt, both of which are better tolerated than fresh milk.

Secondary lactose intolerance

Secondary lactose intolerance develops when lactase production decreases due to diseases that can damage the small intestine. These diseases include celiac disease or Crohn's disease, as well as other diseases or injuries that affect the intestinal wall.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency

The pancreas produces key digestive enzymes amylase, protease, and lipase. People with exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI) are deficient in these enzymes. As a result, they cannot properly digest food, especially fats.

Health conditions that affect the pancreas and are associated with PID:

  • Chronic pancreatitis : inflammation of the pancreas that, over time, can lead to permanent organ damage.
  • Cystic fibrosis : an inherited genetic disorder that causes serious damage to the lungs and digestive system , including the pancreas
  • pancreatic cancer


People who do not have enough digestive enzymes or who want to maintain healthy digestion should consider supplementing their diet with digestive enzymes. They can do this by eating healthy foods that contain natural digestive enzymes. But they can also take nutritional supplements under the direction of a doctor.

Digestive juices require hydration, so remember to drink water throughout the day.


A variety of foods, especially tropical fruits and fermented vegetables, are naturally rich in digestive enzymes that can speed up the digestion of certain nutrients. They are best eaten raw, as heat can reduce or destroy these plant enzymes.

Foods with digestive enzymes
Meal Enzymes Benefit
A pineapple Proteases (bromelain) It helps digest protein and has additional anti-inflammatory effects.
Papaya Proteases (papain) It helps with protein digestion and is a popular meat tenderizer.
Kiwi Proteases (actinidain) In addition to digestive enzymes, the fruit is rich in fiber, which supports the function of the digestive tract.
mango Amylase It helps break down the carbohydrates in starch into simple sugars and increases as the fruit ripens.
Banana Amylase, glucosidase Like amylases, glucosidases also break down complex carbohydrates.
Raw honey Amylase, diastase, invertase, protease Amylases and diastasis help break down starches, invertases break down sugars, and proteases break down proteins.
Avocado Lipases Helps digest and metabolize fat.
Kefir Lipases, lactase, proteases The lactase in kefir helps digest fermented milk and can be tolerated by some people with lactose intolerance.
Sauerkraut, kimchi Lipases, proteases Fermented foods produce enzymes during fermentation, as well as probiotics or beneficial bacteria, to further support the health of the digestive system.
Miso Lactase, lipase, protease, amylase This fermented soybean paste contains a powerful combination of enzymes that help break down lactose into dairy, fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
Ginger Protease (Zingibain) In addition to the enzymes that help break down protein, ginger can also relieve nausea.

Nutritional supplements

Digestive enzyme supplements can be found in:

  • Tablets
  • Powder
  • Fluids obtained from animals, plants or microbes.

There are prescription supplements regulated by the FDA, as well as over-the-counter supplements.

Prescription enzyme supplements are recommended for conditions that affect pancreatic function, such as chronic pancreatitis or pancreatic cancer. Prescription pancreatic enzyme ( pancrelipase ) supplement brands include Creon, Pancreaze, Zenpep, Ultresa, Viokace, and Pertzye.

Over-the-counter enzyme supplements are not regulated by the FDA. There isn't enough quality research on them, so it's hard to say how effective they are. Here are some additional non-prescription enzymes:

  • Lactase supplements can help people with lactose intolerance digest dairy products and are available in pill or drop form.
  • Bromelain is a powerful protease from pineapple fruit or stem that comes in capsule, tablet, or powder form and can aid in protein digestion.
  • Papaya Papain can aid in protein digestion and the powdered form can be used as a meat tenderizer.

As with any supplement, check with your doctor before taking over-the-counter digestive enzymes to make sure they are safe for you.


Digestive enzymes are substances that help digest food. They are produced by the salivary glands and cells of the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine.

Sometimes people have a deficiency in digestive enzymes. These deficiencies are associated with various health conditions. Many of these diseases are related to the pancreas.

You can treat digestive enzyme deficiencies by changing your diet and / or taking prescription or over-the-counter enzyme supplements. Before deciding to take enzyme supplements, check with your doctor. They can help you determine if it is safe for you.

Frequently asked questions

  • If you have pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, cystic fibrosis, or another pancreatic disease, you may need a prescription digestive enzyme supplement. Those who are lactose intolerant can take over-the-counter supplements. Researchers are investigating whether digestive enzymes can help people with celiac disease.

  • It depends on why you are taking them. For example, prescription supplements for cystic fibrosis should be taken with every meal and snack, but the dose and time may vary depending on what you eat and your age. Follow your doctor's prescription or over-the-counter instructions.

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