What are Digestive Enzymes?

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What are Digestive Enzymes?

Yellow Background with Pineapple Digestive Enzymes

Here’s a breakdown of how they break it down.

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It seems to be magic. You chew food, swallow it, absorb vitamins and nutrients from it.

Easy, right?

Well, not exactly. Behind the scenes, there’s a lot going on in your body. In fact, it’s an entire world of enzymes working around the clock to make sure that you get what you need from what you eat.

Just another reminder that your body is awesome.

What Are Digestive Enzymes Exactly?

Digestive enzymes are truly the heroes of your digestive system.

They’re microscopic chains of proteins held together by amino acids and found all over your mouth, stomach, pancreas, and small intestine.

Simply put, they do the hard work so everything can get absorbed into your bloodstream. Think of them as your tiny, tiny food friends.

So, What Exactly Do They Do?

The cool thing about digestive enzymes is that each one is specifically designed to break down one type of food.

Plus, where they’re found in your body is also specific to what they do. Smart little buggers!

Let's dive into how the whole digestion process works. We'll break it down for you (pun intended.)

1. It Starts in Your Mouth

Before you even take a bite, just thinking about, seeing, or smelling food can cause your saliva glands to start producing salivary amylase. [1]

This, in conjunction with your chompers, begins the initial break down of the larger pieces of food into smaller bits.

2. Moves to Your Stomach

Once you’ve chewed it up a bit, the party heads to your stomach, where acids like pepsin, gastric amylase, and hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) get to work.

3. Enters the Small Intestine

At this point, your food is well on its way to being digested and it’s mostly liquid.

Things are then finished off in your small intestine, which uses bile produced by your liver, and enzymes like lipase, nuclease, and trypsin finish off the job.

These enzymes are known as pancreatic, meaning they’re made in your liver, and sent to your small intestine via your gallbladder.

Your small intestine is also where the nutrients are absorbed by tiny cells in your intestinal wall. This is where you see the payoff from those big, complex molecules having been broken down into more manageable ones.

If everything works as it should, the nutrients easily pass through the cell walls and you reap the benefits of all those delicious vitamin and minerals you ate!

But if it doesn’t, you could be in trouble.

When improperly digested food isn’t able to be further broken down in your small intestine, it can lead to Leaky Gut – a syndrome where undigested food, with bacteria and toxins, actually permeates through the cell walls and causes inflammation. This inflammation can lead to diarrhea, headaches, fatigue, and nutrition deficiencies.

The bottom line? Digestive enzymes are key to keeping your body happy and functioning properly.

What are the Different Types of Digestive Enzymes?

The three most common types are amylase, protease, and lipase, which target carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids (fats), respectively.

When molecules are broken down by any enzymes, they are effectively converted into something else that your body can readily use. For example:

  • Amylase converts carbohydrates and starches into sugars for energy
  • Lipase takes the fat and triglycerides you eat and converts them into essential fatty acids, used for an abundance of functions in the body
  • Lactase targets lactose (a sugar found in dairy products) and converts it into other types of sugars – namely glucose and galactose.

Every enzyme has a purpose!

Other Digestive Enzymes

Papain is naturally found in the leaves and fruit of papayas and acts as a proteolytic enzyme (meaning it breaks down proteins). It’s known for its anti-inflammatory properties. One study suggests that it can aid with constipation and bloating for individuals with chronic digestive issues. [2]

Pectinase breaks down carbohydrates like pectin, a polysaccharide found in the foundational cells of fruits and vegetables that allows for cellulose to develop. Studies (conducted on animals) have shown that pectinase supports healthy digestion and nutrient capture.[3]

Hemicellulase breaks down fiber in plant cell walls. This releases nutrients which are bound to the structure of fruits and veggies.

Cellulase helps deconstruct cellulose in high-fiber plant foods. The cellulose is converted to glucose for energy.

Xylanase breaks down xylan, another common fiber found in plant walls. It’s known to help reduce gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort.

Bromelain, naturally found in pineapple, helps break down proteins and is known for its anti-inflammatory properties. This is especially important, given that inflammation in your gut can contribute to IBS and to other issues in your body, like acne or headaches.

Beta-glucanase breaks down beta-glucans, which are carbohydrate strains that humans have a tough time digesting. It helps your body break down the nutritional elements of wheat, oats, rye, and barley-based foods.