What Are Digestive Enzymes?

digestive enzymes
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Digestive enzymes are substances produced by our bodies that help us to digest the foods we eat. These enzymes are secreted by the various parts of our digestive system and they help to break down food components such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. This breakdown allows the nutrients from foods to be absorbed into our bloodstreams so that they can support the functioning of all of the cells in our bodies.

The Release of Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes are released in both anticipation of food and in response to food. This means that just thinking about or looking at food is enough to get your juices flowing! As we smell and eventually taste our food, the amount of enzymes that are being secreted increases.

Enzymes are secreted from our salivary glands, and then from the cells lining our stomach, pancreas, and large and small intestines. Different types of enzymes are secreted depending on the types of foods that we eat.

Types of Digestive Enzymes

Our bodies produce many different types of digestive enzymes to help our bodies to take advantage of the various nutrients found within the foods we consume. Here are examples of some of the more prevalent types of enzymes:


Amylase is a digestive enzyme essential for our digestion of carbohydrates, as amylase breaks down starches into sugars.

Amalase is secreted by both our salivary glands and from our pancreas. The measurement of amylase levels in the blood is sometimes used as an aid in diagnosing various pancreas or other digestive tract diseases.


Lactase is a type of enzyme that breaks down the sugar, lactose, found in dairy products.

Supplemental lactase may be used to assist people who are lactose intolerant to digest dairy products.


Lipase is the enzyme responsible for the breakdown of fats that we consume. Specifically, lipase breaks fats into fatty acids and glycerol (a simple sugar alcohol). Within your body, lipase is produced in small amounts by your mouth and stomach, and in larger amounts by your pancreas.


Maltase is secreted by the small intestine and is responsible for breaking down maltose (malt sugar).


Proteases are digestive enzymes that break down proteins into amino acids. Here are the major types of proteases found within the human digestive tract:

  • Carboxypeptidase A
  • Carboxypeptidase B
  • Chymotrypsin
  • Pepsin
  • Trypsin


Sucrase is secreted by the small intestine where it breaks down sucrose into the simpler sugars of fructose and glucose.

Digestive Enzyme Supplements

There are a wide variety of health conditions that interfere with the secretion of sufficient amounts of digestive enzymes for full digestion of foods.

In such a case a person might benefit from taking a digestive enzyme supplement. One of the areas in which digestive enzyme supplements are most helpful is for people who have chronic pancreatitis. For these individuals, digestive enzyme supplements not only help with digestion, but also can help to ease the pain associated with the disease.


Keller, J. & Layer, P. "Human pancreatic exocrine response to nutrients in health and disease" Gut 2005 54:1-28.

Minocha, A. & Adamec, C. (2011) The Encyclopedia of the Digestive System and Digestive Disorders (2nd Ed.) New York:Facts on File.

Roxas, M. "The Role of Enzyme Supplementation in Digestive Disorders" Alternative Medicine Review 2008 13:307-313.

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