A digestive enzyme is a protein that helps speed up a reaction involved in digestion. Enzymes act as catalysts for processes in our body. Digestive enzymes refer to a broad category of enzymes including pancreatic enzymes, plant-derived enzymes, and fungal-derived enzymes. While our pancreas makes digestive enzymes, so do plants and fungi!
How They Work
When food enters our gastrointestinal tract, it needs to be broken down into smaller parts for nutrient absorption. Different foods require specific enzymes. Digestive enzymes are released in varying locations along the digestive tract depending on where a nutrient is absorbed. For example, fat is primarily absorbed in the small intestine. Therefore, lipase, the enzyme required for lipid digestion, is released by the pancreas into the small intestine. Some foods additionally hold digestive enzymes to aid in their digestion. These foods include pineapple, avocado, papaya, honey, and many others.
Types of Digestive Enzymes & Their Functions
Digestive enzymes tend to be broken down into three classes: lipases, proteases, and amylases. Lipases are necessary to break down fat, proteases are necessary to break down proteins, and amylases are necessary to break down carbohydrates.
- Protease: A category of enzymes that break down proteins into their smaller parts, peptides.
- Lactase: The enzyme that breaks down the sugar in dairy milk, lactose.
- Lipase: A category of enzymes that break down lipids (fats) into fatty acids.
- Amylase: A category of enzymes that break down carbohdyrates into smaller glucose molecules.
Digestive enzymes can be very helpful because they can help the body properly absorb the nutrients in our food. Oftentimes, someone may be experiencing a disruption in their gut, where digestion is compromised and they are missing out on many of the nutrients in their foods. Symptoms of poor digestion include bloating, excess gas, and a change in bowel movements (either diarrhea or constipation).
Some of these conditions may involve an insufficient amount of digestive enzymes. One such condition is lactose intolerance. Those who are lactose intolerant do not produce enough lactase, the enzyme necessary for lactose digestion. Lactose is the sugar found in most dairy products. Therefore, these individuals may choose to take a lactose pill before consuming a slice of pizza, to help their body digest the cheese.
Note: This information is for educational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before treating any disorder.