Digestion is the biological process by which large food particles are broken down into smaller molecules that can be quickly and efficiently absorbed by the gut.
The process begins with chewing, but fluids perform most of the digestive process in the GI tract that contains digestive enzymes.
These enzymes are created within the body and secreted in specific parts of the digestive tract, where they target particular food particles.
Today, we take a deep dive into all things digestive enzymes to see what they are, why they’re needed, and where you can find them.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are small proteins that help break down the foods we eat into smaller, easier-to-absorb molecules.
There are many different digestive enzymes, each acting on a specific type of nutrient within foods, but they can be lumped into three main categories:
- Protein-Specific: Break down protein into smaller peptides and amino acids.
- Carbohydrate-Specific: Break down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars
- Fat-Specific: Break down fats into three fatty acids plus a glycerol molecule
Diving a little bit deeper into each type of digestive enzyme…
Proteases are protein-digesting enzymes.
They break large protein molecules into smaller peptides and individual amino acids.
In the body, the first protease your ingested food comes into contact with is pepsin, which is present in your stomach's gastric juice.
Unlike most digestive enzymes, pepsin is active in a highly acidic environment, and it breaks down proteins in the stomach into smaller “chunks” of proteins called polypeptides.
After leaving the stomach, the polypeptides enter the small intestine, where they are acted upon by other proteolytic enzymes that are secreted by the small intestine and pancreas.
Examples of other proteolytic enzymes that cleave polypeptides in smaller peptides and individual amino acids are endopeptidases (for example, trypsin and chymotrypsin) and exopeptidases (ex. aminopeptidase and carboxypeptidase).
Following these series of enzymatic actions, you have a pool of amino acids that can be absorbed and transmitted into the bloodstream. The amino acids can be used to repair muscle tissue, synthesize new tissue, build hormones and neurotransmitters, or be used in the production of other enzymes.
Carbohydrate-specific enzymes break down complex carbohydrate molecules into smaller sugar molecules, like glucose, fructose, and galactose.
The most well-known carb-deconstructing enzyme is amylase, produced in the salivary glands, pancreas, and small intestine.
A specific type of amylase, called ptyalin, is secreted by the salivary glands and immediately starts breaking down starch once food enters your mouth.
Ptyalin breaks large starch molecules into maltose, a disaccharide composed of two glucose units bonded together.
Upon entering the small intestine, additional enzymes break disaccharides into their single sugar constituents.
For example, sucrase breaks down sucrose (table sugar) into glucose and fructose.
Lactase cleaves lactose (milk sugar) into glucose and galactose.
Maltase breaks maltose into two separate molecules of glucose.
From here, the simple sugar molecules can be absorbed by the cells lining the small intestine.
Lipase is the digestive enzyme responsible for digesting dietary fats (triglycerides).
It is made by the pancreas and secreted into the small intestine.
Lipase is a water-soluble enzyme and cannot begin to breakdown dietary fat until said are mixed with bile, a fluid produced by the gallbladder.
Bile helps “shrink” bigger fat molecules into smaller and smaller droplets, at which point lipase joins the party and helps break each triglyceride into fatty acids and monoglyceride.
From here, the small intestine can absorb the fatty acids and monoglyceride components.
Why Are Digestive Enzymes Important?
Digestive enzymes help break down the food you eat into individual nutrients (amino acids, simple sugars, fatty acids) that can be used for energy production, neurotransmitter synthesis, muscle repair, hormone production, glycogen replenishment, and countless other functions.
If the body cannot synthesize enough digestive enzymes, food cannot be adequately digested, impairing the body's ability to utilize the food that is consumed efficiently.
A deficiency of certain digestive enzymes can also lead to digestive disorders. The most well-known of which is lactose intolerance, which is born out of a lack of the enzyme lactase.
Possible Causes of Digestive Enzyme Deficiency
Several factors may affect the integrity of the body's digestive enzyme reserves and their production and ability to interact with macronutrient molecules effectively.
For instance, if an individual has a fever, the body's internal temperature can rise too high, damaging the digestive enzymes' structure, which can impair their function. Once the illness passes and the fever breaks, the integrity and function of the enzymes should be restored.
Other conditions, such as inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) can reduce the number and effectiveness of various digestive enzymes.
The pH of the stomach or intestines can also affect digestive enzyme activity in the body.
For instance, if the stomach pH is too high (alkaline) or too low (acidic), enzyme shape and function can suffer since digestive enzymes work best in a narrow pH range.
Other compounds called enzymatic inhibitors can also interfere with an enzyme’s ability to digest food molecules.
These inhibitors are naturally occurring in food, and they can also be synthesized and used as medicine.
One of the most common enzymatic inhibitors is antibiotics.
Where Can I Find Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are naturally produced within the body, and they are also found in many foods common to the diet.
For example, pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain, which helps break down proteins into amino acids. Another example is papain, which is found in papaya and helps break complex protein molecules down into individual amino acids.
Raw honey is yet another food that is incredibly rich in digestive enzymes, including:
- Diastases: Helps break down starch into maltose
- Invertases: Helps break down sucrose (“table sugar”) into glucose and fructose
Bananas, a favorite pre or post-workout snack, contains amylase, which helps the body digest all of those tasty carbs naturally found in the fruit.
By eating foods rich in digestive enzymes, individuals can improve their digestion by enhancing digestive enzyme activity in your body.
In addition to being naturally produced within the body and obtaining them from food, digestive enzymes can also be supplemented for added digestive support.
One of the most commonly supplemented enzymes is lactase, which helps break down lactose -- the sugar naturally occurring in dairy. It's quite common to see lactase added to protein powders to assist with digestion and improve overall nutrition.
Steel Greens™ -- our nutrient-dense, superfood greens, and reds complex -- contains Kiwi Powder and Digezyme®.
Kiwifruit supports healthy digestion due to the presence of a proteolytic (protein-digesting) enzyme called actinidin.
Digezyme® is a patented combination of enzymes consisting of:
- α-Amylase: Helps break down carbohydrates into smaller sugar molecules
- Protease: Helps break down protein into peptides and amino acids.
- Cellulase: Helps break down cellulose and chitin -- compounds found in plant foods
- Lactase: Aids digestion of lactose, making it helpful for lactose intolerance
- Lipase: Helps digest lipids and improves fat utilization
Health Benefits of Digestive Enzymes
Supplementing with digestive enzymes may help:
- Support healthy digestion
- Enhance the digestion of protein, carbohydrates, and fat
- Reduce gas, bloating, and other markers of GI distress
- Aid nutrient absorption
- Help the body digest large meals more easily
Digestive enzymes are small proteins that break down larger macronutrient molecules, like protein, carbohydrates, and fats, into smaller molecules that are easier to absorb by the small intestine.
Without adequate digestive enzymes, the body cannot digest food properly, which may lead to impaired recovery, malnutrition, or food intolerances.
Digestive enzymes are naturally synthesized in the body, and they can be obtained naturally through foods, including pineapple, bananas, avocados, raw honey, and kiwifruit.
For additional digestive enzyme support, you can also invest in a premium-quality dietary supplement like Steel Greens™, which contains a comprehensive digestive enzyme complex and fiber, probiotics, and nutrient-dense superfoods spinach, chlorella, and pomegranate.