An enzyme is a type of protein found within a cell. Enzymes create chemical reactions in the body, and can actually speed up the rate of a chemical reaction to help support life.
Enzymes are produced naturally in the body and help with important tasks, including:
- building muscle
- destroying toxins
- breaking down food particles during digestion
An enzyme’s shape is tied to its function. Heat, disease, or harsh chemical conditions can damage enzymes and change their shape. When this happens, an enzyme doesn’t work anymore. This affects the body processes that the enzyme helped to support.
Enzymes are required for proper digestive system function.
You can also take enzymes in pill form if you’re having certain digestive problems.
While there are many different types of digestive enzymes, there are three main types produced in the pancreas, an organ that does a lot of the working during digestion. These digestive enzymes are categorized based on the reactions they help catalyze:
- Amylase breaks down starches and carbohydrates into sugars.
- Protease breaks down proteins into amino acids.
- Lipase breaks down lipids, which are fats and oils, into glycerol and fatty acids.
Amylase is produced mostly in the pancreas, but also in the salvary glands and small intestine. One type of amylase, called ptyalin, is made in the salivary glands and starts to act on starches while food is still in your mouth. It remains active even after you swallow.
Pancreatic amylase is made in the pancreas and delivered to the small intestine. Here it continues to break down starch molecules to sugars, which are ultimately digested into glucose by other enzymes. This is then absorbed into the body’s blood circulation through the wall of the small intestine.
Protease is produced in the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine. Most of the chemical reactions occur in the stomach and small intestine. In the stomach, pepsin is the main digestive enzyme attacking proteins. Several other pancreatic enzymes go to work when protein molecules reach the small intestine.
Lipase is produced in the pancreas and small intestine. A type of lipase is also found in breast milk to help a baby more easily digest fat molecules when nursing. Lipids play many roles, including long-term energy storage and supporting cellular health.
Enzymes, and especially digestive enzymes, can be sensitive to changes in the body. Some of these changes can create an environment that makes it difficult for enzymes to work properly.
Pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI)
Certain health conditions that negatively impact your pancreas can reduce the number and effectiveness of digestive enzymes. Some of these conditions include:
These conditions can lead to pancreatic exocrine insufficiency (PEI), which is a chronic condition that can affect nutrient absorption.
Natural and chemical inhibitors
Chemicals called inhibitors can also interfere with an enzyme’s ability to cause a chemical reaction.
Inhibitors can occur naturally. They can also be manufactured and produced as medications. Antibiotics are a good example. They inhibit or prevent certain enzymes from helping bacterial infections spread.
Your diet may also influence your body’s enzyme activity.
Eating highly processed or high-calorie foods, drinking a lot of alcohol, living a sedentary lifestyle, and not getting proper nutrients can all have a negative impact on your pancreas, and therefore, a negative impact on the enzymes it produces.
Digestive enzyme supplements are available over-the-counter, and may also be prescribed for specific conditions that can create enzyme insufficiency.
Digestive enzymes for enzyme insufficiency
Conditions that affect your pancreas, such as pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, or pancreatic cancer, can all reduce the number of important enzymes your body produces. As a result, you may not get enough enzymes to thoroughly digest your food and obtain the nutritional value from what you eat.
If you have these conditions — or others in which your enzyme levels are below a normal or healthy range — talk with your doctor about treatment options.
For example, individuals living with cystic fibrosis may have to take enzymes with every meal. The exact amount of enzymes can vary depending on factors such as your age and what kind of meal you’re eating.
The only FDA-regulated enzyme replacement therapy is pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT).
Over-the-counter digestive enzymes
Many digestive enzymes are sold over-the-counter (OTC) to help people treat various digestive issues on their own, such as:
- acid reflux
- gas and bloating
One of the main issues with using OTC enzymes is that they aren’t regulated by the FDA, so the ingredients, dosage, and concentration can’t be guaranteed.
If you aren’t living with a condition that causes enzyme insufficiency, chances are you don’t need an OTC enzyme. Lifestyle changes, including focusing on your diet and physical activity level, are typically the best bet for improving digestive enzyme function.
If you’re concerned about recurrent digestive issues, talk to a doctor about what could be causing them.
Enzymes create chemical reactions in the body, and are crucial for a variety of processes, including digestion.
Digestive enzymes are mostly produced in the pancreas, and help your body break down foods and extract nutrients. For many people, it’s possible to help keep digestive enzymes at optimal levels by eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet and maintaining healthy physical activity.
For individuals living with a health condition that may cause pancreatic exocrine insufficiency, such as cystic fibrosis, pancreatic cancer, or type 1 diabetes, digestive enzyme supplementation may be necessary. Your doctor will help you decide if enzyme supplementation is right for you.
Over-the-counter digestive enzymes are also available to treat more minor issues like diarrhea and bloating, but because many of these supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, they may not have the desired effect. If you are having recurring digestive issues, talk to a doctor. There could be an underlying cause that needs more than digestive enzyme treatment.