What Are Digestive Enzymes?

What are digestive enzymes? They are the special proteins that break down food in the digestive tract. When they "break down" food, they literally "digest" it! Without digestive enzymes, we couldn't get nutrients from our food.

In the body, digestive enzymes are produced mainly by the pancreas, but also by the salivary glands, glands in the stomach, and the lining of the small intestine. Intestinal bacteria also produce digestive enzymes.

Many of the same enzymes are also found in raw and cultured food (more on enzymes in food) and available in supplement form. More on enzymes in general: What are enzymes?

The three best known kinds of digestive enzymes:

  • Protease breaks down or digests proteins.
  • Amylase breaks down or digests carbohydrates.
  • Lipase breaks down or digests fats.

There are many different digestive enzymes; some are considered to be one of these basic types. Others are separate types of enzymes. (More on types of enzymes.)

On this page: first, we'll examine how the body produces digestive enzymes, and second, we'll review what digestive enzyme supplements do.

The Body Produces Digestive Enzymes

During digestion, we

  • Break down our food
  • Absorb its nutrients
  • Eliminate the rest

What are digestive enzymes' role in this process? Here is how food moves through the digestive system, and how enzymes work on the food.


  • Raw food (but not cooked food) contains enzymes.


  • Chewing releases enzymes from raw food.
  • The salivary glands produce enzymes, especially salivary amylase.
  • Amylase begins to digest carbohydrates in the mouth.


  • Enzymes from food and the mouth continue to work on the food in the stomach.
  • Glands in the lining of the stomach produce
  • Hormones that communicate with the pancreas, gall bladder, and liver
  • Proenzymes such as pepsinogen
  • Hydrochloric acid, which activates pepsinogen to create the enzyme pepsin (a protease)


  • Releases bile (made by the liver) into the small intestine.
  • Bile is necessary for pancreatic enzymes to work effectively, especially to digest fats.


  • Releases pancreatic enzymes and proenzymes into the small intestine.
  • Pancreatic enzymes include proteases, amylases, and lipases.

Small Intestine

  • The food here is now called chyme.
  • Chyme mixes with bile and pancreatic enzymes.
  • The intestinal lining produces additional enzymes.
  • Enzymes extract nutrients from the chyme.
  • Most nutrients are absorbed into the body from here.

Large Intestine and Rectum

  • Water is extracted from the remains of the chyme.
  • Residue is pushed out.
  • Bacteria here make most of the digestive system's bacteria-made enzymes.

Digestive Enzyme Supplements

You can improve your digestion quickly and efficiently by taking supplements containing digestive enzymes. Taken during, or immediately before a meal, enzymes in capsules or tablet form will help digest your food. This will lead to fewer gut problems, more available nutrients, and better elimination.

Some supplements are designed to digest as many kinds of food as possible. These will contain at least proteases to digest protein, amylases to digest carbohydrates, and lipases to digest fats.

Other supplements will add many specialized enzymes for breaking down specific types of foods. Or, some supplements are designed for just one type of food or type of digestive problem.

The source of enzymes in supplements can be from microbes, animal organs, or plants.

Microbes: Digestive enzymes are frequently grown from bacteria, yeast, or fungi in fermentation. This has become a well-established method of developing proteases, amylases, lipases, and other enzymes.

Animal Organs: There is also a long history of obtaining digestive enzymes directly from animal pancreas and other organ tissue. Pancreatin and pancrelipase are enzymes that are substances derived from the pancreas of animals that include proteases, amylases, and lipases. Freeze-dried animal glandular tissue in supplements also contains these natural enzymes.

Plants: Some digestive enzymes are obtained from fruits, such as pineapples or papayas, that contain specific protease enzymes. Extracts of certain high-enzyme plant foods are also a good source of naturally occurring enzymes.

For more information and a discussion of some high-quality brands of enzyme supplements, see best digestive enzymes.

What Are Digestive Enzymes? Conclusion

Your body produces digestive enzymes to digest your food and to help your body extract nutrients and eliminate the rest. You can help this process along by eating high-enzyme foods and/or taking enzyme supplements—your body will thank you!