Digestive enzymes exist naturally within your digestive system and help your body break down the food you eat. During the digestive process, these enzymes extract the nutrients from what you eat in order for your body to utilize them properly. These digestive enzymes are produced in the pancreas, stomach, small intestine, and even your mouth.
There are three main enzyme types, which correspond to the three macronutrients: carbohydrates, fatty acids, and protein.
- Amylase breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugar molecules. Salivary amylase is produced in your salivary glands as soon as you start chewing. Other amylases, including alpha-, beta-, and gamma-amylase, are produced in the pancreas and small intestine, which help your body absorb starches throughout the entire digestive process.
- Lipase breaks down fat into fatty acids and glycerol. Lipase is produced in the pancreas and small intestine and works with bile from your liver to digest the fat you eat.
- Protease breaks down protein into amino acids. Pepsin is the most active protein-digesting enzyme in the stomach and works to start breaking down more complex protein molecules. As food particles pass into the small intestine, proteases from your pancreas and small intestine continue digesting protein into the amino acids your body can absorb.
All three digestive enzyme types are essential for optimal health. Without these enzymes, your body is unable to derive the nutrients you need from your food. If your body was deficient in these enzymes, even if you were eating enough, your body would starve for certain nutrients. For example, without lipase, your body is unable to properly digest the fats it needs to absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Digestive Enzyme Effectiveness
Digestive enzymes are most effective within a narrow pH range, which means that the pH in your stomach and intestines matters a lot. If an enzyme is in an environment that is too acidic or too basic, its function will suffer.
The food you eat also affects the effectiveness of your digestive enzymes. Many foods contain these naturally occurring digestive enzymes to aid in their digestion. Enzyme-rich foods help boost your body’s natural ability to digest these foods and absorb their nutrients.
Consistently eating a healthy, well-balanced diet helps ensure your digestive enzymes will continue to work optimally. You may feel heartburn, nausea, and indigestion after an occasional (exceptionally) large meal. This heartburn results from not having enough digestive enzymes to process such a large quantity of food at one time.
Food Sources of Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes naturally occur in foods, mainly in fruits:
- Amylase is found in bananas, mangoes, and honey
- Fig, ginger, kiwi, papaya, and pineapple all contain protease
- Avocados contain lipase
Additionally, fermented foods, including kimchi, miso, kefir, and sauerkraut all contain digestive enzymes. However, more research is needed to determine if there are health benefits to consuming the enzymes from these foods to improve digestion.
You may also find our Best Foods for Acid Reflux helpful if you are in search of ways to improve your diet to provide heartburn relief.
Digestive Enzyme Supplements
Recently, more and more over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements have become available. The enzymes in these supplements often come from other animals, while some come from the plants listed above. Supplements may also contain enzymes derived from microbes, or fungi.
Enzyme supplements on the market vary greatly in which enzymes they contain, their potency, their sources, etc. Always remember that supplements, including digestive enzyme supplements, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This results in an even greater product-to-product variations because there is no guarantee that the product ingredients and quantities match what is listed on the label.
Doctors may prescribe prescription-strength digestive enzymes in rare cases. Supplements are necessary in rare instances when your pancreas cannot produce enough enzymes for normal digestion. Taking these enzymes will restore the normal enzyme balance that an individual with a healthy pancreas can achieve.
Digestive Enzymes for Acid Reflux
Acid reflux is often caused by a weak lower esophageal sphincter and/or an overproduction of stomach acid. Dietary modifications help many individuals who suffer from acid reflux find relief from both of these underlying heartburn causes.
High fat foods are one of the most common triggers for acid reflux. High fat meals slow digestion, which leaves food in your stomach for a longer period and provides more opportunity for irritation. Reducing overall fat consumption, and fat consumption at any one time, often helps individuals relieve acid reflux symptoms.
It may seem that taking extra enzymes will help speed digestion to clear food from your stomach more quickly to alleviate reflux symptoms. However, if your body is producing the normal level of digestive enzymes, adding extra enzymes will not decrease the time it takes to digest your food.
When considering fat digestion and acid reflux symptoms, note that fat is a more complex nutrient than carbohydrates or protein. Fat takes longer to digest. Therefore, fat is a more common acid reflux trigger than many high-protein and high-carbohydrate foods. Again, if your body is making an adequate amount of lipase to digest the fat you eat, additional lipase will not relieve your reflux symptoms.
If your body is underproducing a necessary digestive enzyme, supplementing with that enzyme may help improve digestion of that macronutrient. If you believe your body is underproducing digestive enzymes, speak with your doctor about supplementing with specific digestive enzymes. Your doctor will be able to recommend targeted prescription enzymes.
As mentioned above, prescription digestive enzymes are an option for individuals who do not produce adequate amounts of digestive enzymes. However, acid reflux in general is not a condition that warrants prescription strength digestive enzyme supplements.
When it comes to research on over-the-counter digestive enzymes, there are not enough published studies to provide a clear conclusion regarding their effect on treating acid reflux. Several small studies have shown mixed results on gastrointestinal symptoms. For example, one small study showed a reduction in abdominal pain when taking a plant-derived digestive enzyme. However, no significant improvements were seen in the participant’s heartburn. Another study showed an improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms after a high-fat meal when using a prescription-strength digestive enzyme. More research is needed in this area.
The Bottom Line
Digestive enzymes are naturally produced by your body to digest the food you eat efficiently and effectively. While digestive enzymes are available over-the-counter in supplement form, taking these supplements is not likely to produce a substantial reduction in your acid reflux symptoms. For natural remedies, that are proven to be effective, read Natural Cures for Acid Reflux.
If you are looking for more specific guidance to find your best eating pattern, our team of dietitians and nutritionists is here to help you build the acid reflux diet that can improve and even eliminate your heartburn symptoms!
Liz has been reading nutrition labels since she learned how to read. Growing up with severe peanut and tree nut allergies she learned that it’s important to know what you are putting into your body. She made her first big lifestyle change as a freshman in high school, when she decided to become a vegetarian. However, it wasn’t until she took a food class in Italy as part of a study abroad program in college that it clicked in her mind that she wanted to make food and nutrition her career. Liz graduated from Penn State University in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in Nutrition, as well as a bachelor's degree in Marketing. She completed her dietetic internship with Aramark in Philadelphia, and her master's degree at Northeastern University shortly after.