Digestive enzymes - what function do they perform in the body and why are they so important?

Digestive enzymes - what function do they perform in the body and why are they so important?

Digestive enzymes are substances necessary for the proper functioning of the digestive system, and thus for the work of the entire body.

Their role is to break down the food consumed into smaller, well-absorbed nutrients. How exactly do digestive enzymes work and can the body run out of them?

What are digestive enzymes?

In the human body, almost all occurring processes require the presence of enzymes. It is no different in the case of the work of the digestive tract.

Digestive enzymes are macromolecular proteins. These are substances that allow the breakdown of complex compounds into simpler forms. They are secreted in the digestive system and participate in the processes of digestion of individual ingredients from ingested food.

Digestive enzymes are produced naturally in the body by the digestive glands. And although each organ is responsible for a different enzyme, the different compounds complement each other, so it is important that the body does not lack any of them.

The digestion process already begins in the mouth precisely due to the presence of salivary amylase, which is produced by the salivary glands.

Division of digestive enzymes

Digestive enzymes can be divided according to the type of digested ingredients:

  • Proteolytic enzymes (peptidases) - are enzymes responsible for digesting proteins, that is, breaking down peptide bonds,
  • Amylolytic enzymes (amylases) - take care of the breakdown of carbohydrates,
  • Lipolytic enzymes (lipase) - are responsible for breaking down fats,
  • nucleolytic enzymes (nucleases) - contribute to the breakdown of nucleic acids. Among nucleolytic enzymes, we can distinguish ribonucleases, which affect RNA, and deoxyribonucleases, which affect DNA.

We can also separate digestive enzymes by the site of their action, in which case the division is shaped as follows:

  • Oral cavity - this is where enzymes such as salivary amylase and lysozyme work,
  • The stomach produces enzymes such as pepsin or gastric lipase and rennet (which is secreted in a child's stomach until the age of three),
  • The duodenum is responsible for trypsinogen, chymotrypsinogen, elastase, gastric lipase, pancreatic amylase, disaccharidase, pancreatic nucleases,
  • The small intestine is the site of action of enzymes such as aminopeptidases, carboxypeptidases, intestinal amylase, saccharase, intestinal lipase, lactase, intestinal nucleases.

Functions of digestive enzymes

Digestive enzymes produced by the human body are essential for its proper functioning and for the proper conduct of digestive processes in each section of the digestive system. The role of the substance actually comes down to:

  • breaking down large food particles into simple and easily absorbed nutrients,
  • support metabolic processes,
  • taking care of the proper functioning of the digestive system,
  • the facilitation of nutrient absorption.

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How do digestive enzymes work in the body?

Digestive enzymes are responsible for catalyzing the chemical reactions involved in the breakdown of nutrients. They make these processes more efficient, and this allows for the efficient processing of ingested compounds.

In food, both proteins and carbohydrates or fats are found in large molecules. Thanks to the work of digestive enzymes, they are broken down into smaller fragments, and this allows them to be absorbed through the intestinal wall and used by the human body. This, in turn, allows for maximum efficient use of nutrients from the food consumed.

Digestive enzymes are produced simultaneously in many organs of the body. Although there are many, their functions complement each other.

For the proper functioning of the substance, the pH of the environment is important. Each section of the digestive tract is distinguished by a specific level of acidity, which enables the activation of certain enzymes in the appropriate place of the digestive tract and affects the proper functioning of the substance.

Course of the digestion process

Enzymes that are responsible for the initial digestion of food are already produced in the mouth, more specifically in the salivary glands. The salivary amylase produced then is responsible for the initial digestion of complex sugars such as starch or glycogen. The salivary glands also produce an enzyme known as lysozyme, which has bactericidal functions.

In the stomach, it is the gastric glands that are responsible for the production of digestive enzymes. This is where pepsin is produced, which catalyzes the initial breakdown of proteins, as well as gastric lipase, which is responsible for the initial digestion of fats. The stomach also produces rennet, which is an enzyme specific to infancy. Participates in the breakdown of (casein protein) present in milk. Rennet is an enzyme that is present in the body until about 3 years of age.

More enzymes are produced in the pancreas, which are then released into the duodenum. Pancreatic lipase continues to digest fats, while pancreatic amylase breaks down sugars into simpler molecules. Trypsinogen is converted into an active form known as trypsin with the help of a small intestinal mucosal enzyme and further digests proteins and activates chymotrypsinogen converting it into chymotrypsin.

In the further sections of the small intestine, carboxypeptidases and aminopeptidases act to break down proteins, as well as maltase, sucrase and lactase break down sugars into simpler molecules. An enzyme that thrives in the small intestine is also intestinal lipase, which breaks down fats, as well as nucleases and nucleosidases.

Finally, the decomposed compounds are absorbed into the bloodstream and are transported with the blood.

Digestive enzyme deficiency

Digestive enzyme deficiency can be caused by a number of factors. Insufficient amount of enzymes can translate into a disorder of the whole organism.

Causes of digestive enzyme deficiency

The causes of enzyme deficiency include:

  • chronic stress,
  • genetic predisposition,
  • inadequate diet,
  • digestive disorders,
  • progressive aging processes,
  • diseases of the digestive system.

Symptoms of digestive enzyme deficiency

Symptoms of digestive enzyme deficiency include::

  • diarrhea or constipation,
  • nausea,
  • stomach pain,
  • indigestion,
  • reflux,
  • feeling of overfilling.

However, it should be remembered that the above-mentioned symptoms may also indicate many other diseases, so always, in the event of undesirable phenomena in the body, you should consult a doctor and perform a full diagnosis to find the cause of pain and implement appropriate treatment.

How to supplement the deficiency of digestive enzymes?

When there is a deficiency of digestive enzymes, it is very important to act as soon as possible to correct the deficiency and equalize the level of essential substances in the body.

First of all, it is worth reducing stressful situations in life, as well as introducing into it a well-balanced diet. Go for foods rich in fiber and probiotics, including vegetables and fruits, as well as sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir and sour milk.

If possible, it's a good idea to eliminate hard-to-digest foods, fast-food meals and fatty foods from your diet.

The next step can be properly selected supplementation, which will positively affect the course of digestive processes.

Supplements containing digestive enzymes

Supplementation with digestive enzymes is recommended primarily among people who struggle with deficiencies of these substances. In addition, it may also be indicated among people suffering from various digestive system diseases.

Whenever you start taking dietary supplements, you should consult your doctor before taking them. It is also important to take the preparations used in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations on the product packaging.

Various types of digestive enzyme supplements are commercially available to provide the body with either single enzymes or ready-made complexes of compounds.

Even a single use of a supplement rich in digestive enzymes can improve your well-being. In turn, long-term intake of preparations can prevent unpleasant gastrointestinal complaints.

It is worth remembering that even the best-suited dietary supplements are no substitute for a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.


  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20522896/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31478136/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31334962/
  4. https://agro.icm.edu.pl/agro/element/bwmeta1.element.agro-999c7563-c29f-463c-8eed-9e76990f21e5
  5. https://www.infona.pl/resource/bwmeta1.element.agro-a6d4b0b4-9f8f-4ae5-bd19-108f57f0914c
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