What Are Digestive Enzymes?

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on February 23, 2024
3 min read

Digestive enzymes play a key role in breaking down the food you eat. These proteins speed up chemical reactions that turn nutrients into substances that your digestive tract can absorb.

Your saliva has digestive enzymes in it. Some of your organs, including your pancreas, gallbladder, and liver, also release them. Cells on the surface of your intestines store them, too.

Different types of enzymes target different nutrients:

  • Amylase breaks down carbs and starches
  • Protease works on proteins
  • Lipase handles fats

Fruits, vegetables, and other foods have natural digestive enzymes. Eating them can improve your digestion.

  • Honey, especially the raw kind, has amylase and protease.
  • Mangoes and bananas have amylase, which also helps the fruit to ripen.
  • Papaya has a type of protease called papain.
  • Avocados have the digestive enzyme lipase.
  • Sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage, picks up digestive enzymes during the fermentation process.

If your body doesn't make enough digestive enzymes, it can't digest food well. That can mean stomachaches, diarrhea, gas, or other painful symptoms.

Some digestive disorders prevent your body from making enough enzymes, such as:

Lactose intolerance. This is when your small intestine doesn't make enough of the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the natural sugar in milk called lactose. With a shortage of lactase, lactose in dairy products that you eat travels straight to your colon instead of getting absorbed into your body. It then combines with bacteria and causes uncomfortable stomach symptoms.

There are three kinds of lactose intolerance:

Primary. You are born with a gene that makes you lactose intolerant. The gene is most common in people of African, Asian, or Hispanic background. Your lactase levels drop suddenly as a child. Then you're no longer able to digest dairy as easily. This is the most common type of lactose intolerance.

Secondary. Your small intestine makes less lactase after an illness, injury, or surgery. It can also be a symptom of both celiac disease and Crohn's disease.

Congenital or developmental. From the time you are born, your body doesn't make lactase. This is rare. You have to inherit the gene for this from both your mother and father.

People with lactose intolerance need to move their bowels a lot and have gas and bloating after eating or drinking dairy products like milk and ice cream. Some people can manage symptoms by eating smaller amounts of dairy. Others avoid dairy completely or choose lactose-free foods and drinks.

Exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI). This can happen when another condition damages the pancreas. Common causes of EPI include:

To treat EPI, your doctor may suggest lifestyle changes, such as:

  • If you smoke, quit
  • Avoid drinking alcohol
  • Eat a low-fat diet
  • Take vitamin and mineral pills

Prescription medicine may also improve your symptoms.

You may have noticed digestive enzyme pills, powders, and liquids on the aisles of pharmacies or health and nutrition stores. These supplements may ease digestive disorder symptoms. Your age, weight, and other things determine the right dose. But remember, over-the-counter enzyme supplements are not regulated by the FDA the same way as prescription medicines. The makers of these products do not have to prove that they are effective.

Always talk to your doctor before trying any kind of supplement. More research is needed to study how safe they are and how well they work. But over-the-counter lactase supplements help many people with lactose intolerance, and there is a supplement that seems to help people digest the sugars that are in beans.

Experts do not recommend lactase supplements for children under age 4. Also, talk to your doctor about the pros and cons if you're pregnant or breastfeeding.

Right now, most enzyme products are animal-based. Researchers predict that plant and bacteria-based products could be more common in the future.