What are digestive enzymes?

Different parts of your digestive system, including your mouth, stomach, and small intestine, make digestive enzymes. 

These naturally produced enzymes help break down food so you get the nutrients you need.

Problems with digestive enzymes can lead to health issues.

In this article, we’ll explain what exactly these enzymes are, and what happens if they’re not working correctly.

What are digestive enzymes?

Your body makes digestive enzymes to help break down food into nutrients. These, in turn, give you energy, help you grow, and help maintain your body’s functions.

During digestion, your body breaks down carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into small soluble compounds. These then get absorbed through the wall of your intestines and into your blood.

Digestion begins in your mouth. When you chew, digestive enzymes are released in your saliva, and they also get released at various other stages of digestion.

The most important digestive enzymes are:

  • amylase, which breaks down complex carbohydrates

  • maltase, which breaks down a particular sugar called maltose

  • lipase, which breaks down fats

  • protease, which breaks down proteins

  • lactase, which breaks down lactose

  • sucrase, which breaks down sucrose

If you don't have enough digestive enzymes, it can lead to health concerns.

Sources of digestive enzymes

At various areas of your digestive system, you make these enzymes.

But can supplements or foods help balance or increase your digestive enzyme levels? Let's take a look.

Digestive enzymes from foods

A quick Google search turns up claims that certain foods are rich in digestive enzymes and can therefore support your digestion. 

Most often, you see claims about pineapples, mangoes, avocados, bananas, and fermented foods.

Although the foods above do contain various digestive enzymes, there's no solid evidence that eating them helps with digestion.

Digestive enzyme supplements

The market for digestive enzyme supplements is growing fast — but are they worth your money?

There are two types of these supplements: those you can buy over the counter and those that require a prescription.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn't regulate over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements. This means that you don't know exactly which — or how many — enzymes are actually in them.

And no significant research into these over-the-counter supplements suggests that they have any benefits.

At ZOE, we don't recommend over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements. If you’re considering buying one, speak with your doctor first. 

Meanwhile, healthcare professionals sometimes prescribe digestive enzyme supplements for people with certain conditions, like cystic fibrosis and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.

This treatment is called pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, or PERT. 

Digestive enzyme-related health issues

The most common factors that cause issues with digestive enzymes are:

●  some problems that affect your pancreas, like chronic pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, or cysts

●  cystic fibrosis

●  certain metabolic disorders, like diabetes

●  gastrointestinal surgeries

●  lactose intolerance 

And some symptoms of not having enough digestive enzymes include:

●  bloating and excessive gas

●  abdominal cramping, especially after meals

●  diarrhea

●  oily or greasy stool

●  very smelly stool

●  unexplained weight loss

If you have concerns about your symptoms, speak with a healthcare professional. They can help find the cause and decide on the best treatment.

How are digestive enzymes different from probiotics?

Some supplements claim to contain both probiotics and digestive enzymes, so it can be easy to confuse the two. They’re both associated with gut health, after all.

To recap, digestive enzymes help break down your food into simple nutrients that you can absorb through your bloodstream. Your body makes them at different points throughout your digestive system.

Probiotics are live microbes that can contribute to a healthy gut microbiome — the trillions of bugs in your gut that affect many aspects of your health.

Probiotics help support healthy digestion by promoting the "good" bacteria in your gut. 


Your body makes digestive enzymes to break down food into nutrients. These then get absorbed through your bloodstream.

The FDA doesn’t regulate any over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements, so you can’t be sure what these products contain. At ZOE, we don’t recommend them.

If you’re thinking of taking an over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplement, speak with a doctor first.

Prescription digestive enzymes are different. A doctor may prescribe these supplements for people with health conditions like cystic fibrosis or chronic pancreatitis.

Digestive enzymes aren’t the same as probiotics, which are living microbes that may benefit your gut and overall health.

Having a varied diet rich in whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats can support your long-term health. 

With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn how your body responds to different types of foods, as well as which “good” and “bad” bugs are living in your gut. 

Based on your results, we can provide you with nutrition advice tailored to your body and your long-term goals. 

Take our free quiz to get started.