Overview

An enzyme is a type of protein found within a cell. Enzymes create chemical reactions in the body. They actually speed up the rate of a chemical reaction to help support life.

The enzymes in your body perform very important tasks. These include building muscle, destroying toxins, and 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 the enzyme helped support.

Enzymes are produced naturally in the body. They’re mostly produced in the pancreas, stomach, and small intestine. But even your salivary glands produce digestive enzymes to start breaking down food molecules while you’re still chewing. You can also take enzymes in pill form if you’re having certain digestive problems.

Types of enzymes

There are three main types of digestive enzymes. They’re 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.

Why are enzymes important for digestion?

Enzymes are essential for healthy digestion and a healthy body. They work with other chemicals in the body, such as stomach acid and bile, to help break down food into molecules for a wide range of bodily functions.

Carbohydrates, for instance, are needed for energy, while protein is necessary to build and repair muscle, among other functions. But they must be converted into forms that can be absorbed and utilized by your body.

How enzymes work in your digestive system

Amylase is produced in the salivary glands, pancreas 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. Other amylase enzymes finish the job of converting starch into glucose. This is then absorbed into the body 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. 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.

What affects enzymes?

Enzymes work best at your normal body temperature. The average body temperature is 98.6°F (37°C), but normal body temperatures can range from 97 to 99°F (36.1 to 37.2°C).

If you run a fever and your temperature increases too much, the structure of enzymes breaks down. They no longer function properly. Restoring your body temperature to its optimal range will help restore enzyme health. Certain health conditions, such as pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, can also reduce the number and effectiveness of certain digestive enzymes.

The pH level of your stomach or intestines can also affect enzyme activity. A low pH means something is very acidic. A high pH means it’s basic or alkaline. Enzymes work best in a fairly narrow pH range. If the environment surrounding an enzyme becomes too acidic or too basic, the enzyme’s shape and function will suffer.

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 can also influence your body’s enzyme activity. That’s because many foods contain digestive enzymes that help share the burden of the naturally occurring enzymes in your body.

For example, bananas contain amylase. So even though a banana is packed with carbs, it also comes with amylase to help you digest it so you can use those carbs for energy later.

Eating enzyme-rich foods can boost enzyme activity in your body. Just keep in mind the calories and other nutritional information about the foods in your diet.

When are enzyme supplements needed?

Problems with your pancreas, such as pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, or pancreatic cancer, can 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 all 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.

Dietary enzymes are available in pill form as supplements. If your doctor recommends trying these supplements, make sure you get pancreatic enzyme products (PEPs) that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

If a PEP doesn’t include an FDA approval on its label, there’s a chance it may not contain everything it claims to. Likewise, it may have ingredients not listed on the label. These products are usually taken with meals.

You may also need enzyme supplementation if you’re exposed to various chemicals or pesticides, or if your foods are always cooked at high temperatures. Heating foods can knock off any naturally occurring enzymes in the foods.

Some people may have stomach irritation with enzyme supplements. Be sure to talk with your doctor about any potential risks or complications with dietary enzymes.

The takeaway

Enzymes are crucial for good health. Your body produces them. You can also get them in fruits, vegetables, and other foods. They’re also available in supplements.

But if you’re in good health, follow a healthy plant-based diet, and your doctor says your enzyme levels are healthy, don’t start taking enzyme supplements simply hoping to get even healthier. They can affect your metabolism in negative ways.

If you have a chronic disease such as cancer or if your doctor has told you that you’re lacking in certain nutrients, then be sure to discuss whether to take supplements and what kind you should take. Changes in the color and consistency of your stool may indicate nutritional deficiencies.

Taking dietary enzymes can make a positive impact on your health, but only if you really need them.