Digestive enzymes play a crucial role in our overall digestive health, primarily by aiding in the breakdown and absorption of nutrients from the foods we consume. While our bodies naturally produce these enzymes, a number of factors (like age and certain digestive conditions) can impact how many the gut has to work with. This is where digestive enzyme supplements come into play.
In this article, we'll explore the benefits of digestive enzymes, from supporting optimal digestion, nutrient absorption, and overall gut health to modulating healthy inflammatory and immune responses.*
Whether you're experiencing digestive issues, have specific dietary restrictions, or want to optimize your digestive (and whole-body!) health, understanding the potential advantages of digestive enzymes can help you make informed decisions about incorporating them into your routine.*
What are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are compounds produced by the body that help break down food into smaller, more easily absorbable molecules. Each type of enzyme targets a specific type of nutrient, facilitating its digestion and absorption.
These enzymes are primarily produced endogenously throughout the digestive system (i.e., in the salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, and small intestine), but can also be taken as a supplement for further digestive support. They help the body effectively utilize nutrients for energy, growth, and overall functioning.*
RELATED READ: What Exactly Are Digestive Enzymes—And Do You Need Them?
Types of digestive enzymes
There are several types of digestive enzymes, each responsible for breaking down different components of food:*
- Amylase breaks down carbohydrates (starches and sugars) into smaller sugar molecules, like glucose.
- Proteases—such as trypsin, pepsin, and fruit proteases bromelain (from pineapple) and papain (from papaya)—break down proteins into amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.
- Lipase breaks down fats (lipids) into fatty acids and glycerol.
- Lactase is responsible for digesting lactose, the sugar found in dairy products.
- Maltase breaks down maltose (malt sugar) into glucose.
- Sucrase is responsible for breaking down sucrose (table sugar) into fructose and glucose.
- Cellulase breaks down cellulosic fibers.
It’s worth noting that while this list covers many of the main digestive enzymes, it’s far from complete. You’ll find there are many, many different types of enzymes that impact digestion.
Benefits of digestive enzymes
Aid nutrient absorption
Arguably their most important role, digestive enzymes initiate chemical reactions that help break down the food you eat and turn nutrients into easily absorbable substances.*
"Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down food macromolecules into their smaller building blocks, in order to facilitate their absorption into the body through the gut lining," digestive health expert Vincent Pedre, M.D. previously told mindbodygreen. "The body makes a variety of digestive enzymes, from amylase in saliva to proteases in the stomach to lipase in the small intestine."
Without adequate levels of these critical digestive enzymes, your gut will have a tougher time properly absorbing the nutrients your body needs. You may also experience GI health issues, such as stomach upset.
According to a 2018 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published by the Journal of Medicinal Food, supplementation of digestive enzymes may help to reduce bloating, stomach upset, and other GI concerns1.*
Promote healthy digestion
As the name suggests, digestive enzymes can help with a number of digestive functions. In a 2013 randomized controlled trial (RCT) from Neuroendocrinology Letters, papain (papaya) supplements were found to help maintain healthy digestive tract physiology2, significantly reduce bloat, and even promote healthy elimination.
Enhance gut microbiota & intestinal barrier
Intestinal barrier integrity and healthy gut microbiota are critical components of digestion, as they majorly impact the absorption of key nutrients in the gut.
According to a 2022 animal study published by Metabolites, bromelain can help increase the thickness of the ileal mucosa4 (the mucosa lining your gut wall that secretes digestive enzymes and aids nutrient absorption). Fruit proteases (i.e., bromelain and papain) were also found to enhance the amount of pancreatic trypsin (another type of protease) and modulate gut microbiota in the study.
Support a healthy inflammatory response
One of the more surprising benefits of digestive enzymes is their potential role in regulating healthy inflammatory actions.*
Enhance immune response
Given the gut’s impact on immune function, it’s less surprising that digestive enzymes also play a role in maintaining a healthy immune system.*
Promote healthy cholesterol levels
Preclinical studies present promising actions in digestive enzymes' ability to promote healthy cardiometabolic function.* In a 2021 study published by the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, papain was found to markedly reduce serum total cholesterol and triglyceride levels6 in mice.
Additionally, a 2016 study in mice found that a combination of several digestive enzymes (i.e., amylase, glucoamylase, lipase, bromelain, maltase, lactase, hemicellulase, xylanase, papain, and invertase) and probiotic strains resulting in a 78% decrease in serum LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and a 52% increase in serum HDL (“good”) cholesterol.* Researchers hypothesize these impressive changes in cholesterol levels were due to an increase in short-chain fatty acids, which are known to inhibit cholesterol synthesis.
Support muscle recovery
In older studies, digestive enzymes have also been shown to help promote healthy muscle recovery following strenuous exercise.*
In a 2004 clinical trial published by the Journal of Sports Sciences, runners that took a digestive enzyme supplement (a blend of proteases, amylase, lipase, and other digestive enzymes) saw superior recovery of contractile function8 and diminished effects of delayed-onset muscle soreness following intense downhill running compared to the control group.*
Sources of digestive enzymes
There are three primary ways to obtain digestive enzymes: the body's natural production, food, and supplementation.
The body produces its own digestive enzymes, which are secreted by various organs in the digestive system. For example, salivary glands release amylase to initiate carbohydrate digestion, while the pancreas produces enzymes like amylase, lipase, and protease to further break down food in the small intestine. The small intestine also produces enzymes like lactase to digest lactose.
These endogenous enzymes are essential for proper digestion and nutrient absorption.
In addition to the body's natural enzymes, certain foods can provide external sources of digestive enzymes:
- Pineapple contains bromelain and papaya contains papain, both of which are protease enzymes that aid in protein digestion.
- Honey9 and banana contain amylase, an enzyme that helps break down carbohydrates.
- Fermented foods10 like sauerkraut and kimchi also contain natural enzymes that help support digestion.
For further digestive support, some individuals may opt for digestive enzyme supplements, which are available in various forms and formulations and often contain a combination of enzymes to support the breakdown of macronutrients.*
mindbodygreen’s very own organic veggies+ powder delivers a blend of digestive enzymes (protease, amylase, glucoamylase, invertase, diastase, and lipase), as well as sea vegetables, leafy greens, berries, herbs, and pre- and probiotics to aid digestion and nutrient absorption and promote a healthy gut microbiome.*
Frequently Asked Questions
Should you take digestive enzymes before or after you eat?
While each digestive enzyme supplement is unique, they’re generally best utilized if taken just before or at the beginning of a meal. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure that the digestive enzymes are present when the food reaches the stomach and small intestine, where most of the digestion and absorption occur.
Is it OK to take digestive enzymes every day?
For most people, it is generally safe to take digestive enzymes on a daily basis. Digestive enzyme supplements are commonly used to support digestion and provide digestive comfort in individuals with specific GI health concerns.*
If you experience unwanted side effects while taking digestive enzymes, speak to your health care provider.
How do I know if I need digestive enzymes?
Determining if you need digestive enzymes is best done through consultation with a health care professional (e.g., a registered dietitian or gastroenterologist) who can assess your specific GI concerns, medical history, and overall digestive health.
However, there are several signs that may indicate a potential need for digestive enzymes—including GI health concerns (bloat, gas, etc.), nutrient deficiencies, digestive conditions, and aging.
Digestive enzymes are a vital component of optimal gut health and function. While the body makes the digestive enzymes it needs endogenously, some people need a little extra help via food and/or a high-quality supplement (like mindbodygreen’s organic veggies+) to ensure optimal nutrient absorption and digestive well-being.*
But remember, digestive enzymes are not a substitute for addressing the root cause of digestive issues. Rather, they’re meant to complement a balanced diet, proper hydration, regular physical activity, and other measures for optimal digestion.
If you’re concerned about your own digestion, work with your health care provider to ensure you’re optimizing your gut health holistically and comprehensively.
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.