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Breaking Down the Basics of Digestive Enzymes

Breaking Down the Basics of Digestive Enzymes Digestion occurs through both mechanical factors and enzymatic factors. Enzymes are proteins that are distinguished by their ability to catalyze a chemical reaction without being consumed in the process. The enzymes involved in digestion are responsible most importantly for breaking up macronutrient macromolecules of carbohydrate, fat and protein into smaller molecular components.

Medically, therapy with digestive enzymes is used for individuals with certain conditions. Cystic fibrosis patients are treated with pancreatic enzyme supplements in order to aid digestion and allow for growth and weight gain.[1] Other medical conditions such as celiac disease and pancreatic exocrine insufficiency from various causes are also treated as a standard of care through digestive enzymes orally.[2]

Enzymes have been used in traditional folk medicine to support digestion and other uses. Initially they were from whole plant parts or crude extracts, such as bromelain and papain from pineapples and papaya. Papain was first investigated by contemporary researchers in 1873.[3]

There have also been several research efforts examining the addition of digestive enzymes to improve health beyond digestion. Bromelain has been shown in several studies, albeit “uncontrolled or comparative studies” to have potential for utility in osteoarthritis, but larger and more well-designed studies were said to be necessary.[4] However, based on the sum total of the evidence, the FDA has declined creating any claims regarding these types of substances.

The digestive system also is rich with signaling activities from both the hormonal and nervous systems, and immune activity from the immune and lymph systems. Describing the influences stemming from just protein digestion, a review article in the journal Nutrients had this to say about the wider influence of the breakdown of nutrients:

“The interaction of dietary proteins and their products of digestion with the regulatory functions of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract plays a dominant role in determining the physiological properties of proteins. The site of interaction is widespread, from the oral cavity to the colon.” Gut-HealthThe impact of these products, they went on to say “affect several regulatory functions by interacting with receptors releasing hormones, affecting stomach emptying and GI transport and absorption, transmitting neural signals to the brain, and modifying the microflora.”[5]

Significant research shows microbe status in the GI system has a relationship with inflammation levels systemically. [6]

Enzymes catalyze a particular reaction, and work most effectively in a particular range of conditions. Outside of their functional range, enzymes will either be inactive relative to their target process, or will break down all together. Relevant conditions include most prominently temperature and pH. Enzymes also often require cofactors to properly facilitate their activity. These co-factors are most commonly minerals or vitamins taken in through the diet.

Overall, digestive efficacy decreases as we age. The secretion of protein digesting enzymes such as pepsin in the stomach and chymotrypsin from the pancreas are decreased in the elderly.[7] Additionally , pancreatic lipase may decrease as well as lower levels of lactase, decreasing digestive efficiency of some fats and carbohydrate molecules.[8]

Digestive enzymes provide the body with the tools needed to break down valuable nutrients. And though the body endogenously produces many enzymes, aging, medications and diet can create less-than-ideal enzyme production. The result is poor digestion.


[1] Littlewood JM, et al. Diagnosis and treatment of intestinal malabsorption in cystic fibrosis. Pediatr Pulmonol. 2006 Jan;41(1):35-49.

[2] Keller J, Layer P. Pancreatic Enzyme Supplementation Therapy. Curr Treat Options Gastroenterol. 2003 Oct;6(5):369-374.

[3] Worthington Enzyme Manual, Wothington Biochemical, 1993.

[4] Brien S, et al. Bromelain as a Treatment for Osteoarthritis: a Review of Clinical Studies. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2004 Dec;1(3):251-257.

[5] Jahan-Mihan A, et al. Dietary proteins as determinants of metabolic and physiologic functions of the gastrointestinal tract. Nutrients. 2011 May;3(5):574-603.

[6] Proal, Amy et al. Inflammatory Disease and the Human Microbiome, Discovery Medicine. 2014 May; 19(105).

[7] Nutr Hosp. 2011 Jul-Aug;26(4):659-68. [8] Grassi M, et al. Changes, functional disorders, and diseases in the gastrointestinal tract of elderly. Nutr Hosp. 2011 Jul-Aug;26(4):659-68.

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