What are Digestive Enzymes - and How do they Work?

Find out when you should take digestive enzymes and which ones are best for your digestive problems.

"They changed my life." That's what patients often tell Ellen Cutler, DC, after incorporating digestive enzymes into their daily nutritional routine. Why such dramatic results? "Enzymes are essential to life," says Cutler, author of MicroMiracles: Discover the Healing Power of Enzymes and a health professional, who has been using enzymes to treat many types of conditions for more than 25 years.

"Even if you eat good food every day," she says, "if you don't digest it properly, undigested food can actually seep from the small intestine into the bloodstream, and the immune system reacts." Lack of energy and digestive discomfort are among the first symptoms, but there are many others.

Symptoms of Undigested Food in the Small Intestine

  • craving certain foods
  • weight gain
  • thyroid problems
  • bloating, heartburn, gas, indigestion or burping after meals
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • hair that is dull, thinning, or falling out
  • lackluster skin
  • weak or cracked nails
  • trouble getting up in the morning
  • sleep problems 
  • arthritis or joint pain
  • feeling too tired to exercise
  • depression 
  • mood swings
  • headaches or migraines
  • ADHD
  • rashes
  • hives
  • hot flashes
  • PMS
  • and, sometimes, fertility problems

Poor digestion also speeds up the aging process.

What Are Enzymes?

Enzymes are, by definition, catalysts that enable molecules to be changed from one form into another. Digestive enzymes enable food to be broken down into nutrients in our bodies to produce energy, and repair and maintain our physical structure and function.

In nature, raw fruits and vegetables contain enzymes necessary for their digestion. For example, a raw apple theoretically contains the enzymes necessary for our bodies to utilize its nutrients; however, if the apple is grown in nutrient-depleted soil, its enzyme content will be below par. And if the fruit becomes apple pie, sauce, or pasteurized juice, its enzymes are completely destroyed by heat.

Our bodies also produce digestive enzymes. However, says Cutler, "If we don't eat a predominantly raw food diet and don't chew well, we don't get enzymes from food, and our bodies can't produce enough." Given that most of the food Americans consume is not raw fruits and vegetables grown in nutrient-rich soils, most people could benefit from enzyme supplements. This is especially true if your digestive health isn't up to par. A probiotic with enzymes in this case, would support your gut microbiome while also helping you break down the molecules in the food that you eat - giving you total coverage.

Each type of food, such as proteins, sugars, starches, and fats, requires a specific type of enzyme, so it's best to get a formula that covers all the bases (see "Top 10 Enzymes," below). In addition, protease, which enables efficient protein digestion, can be used as a separate supplement to alleviate autoimmune and inflammatory conditions and pain. Customized enzyme therapy is used by some health practitioners to treat many health conditions, including cancer.

Digestive enzymes can also alleviate a major factor that increases risk for disease, excess weight, and obesity. "If you start digesting your food," says Cutler, "your body will be getting nutrients it never got, and you will feel balanced with less food."

How to Benefit from Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes are safe for adults and children, says Cutler, and these are the best ways to use them:

Taking digestive enzymes between meals may help reduce discomfort and inflammation.


For optimum digestion of food and nutritional supplements: take plant-based digestive enzymes no more than 10 minutes before each meal or with your first bite. Choose a high-quality formula that contains the top 10 enzymes.

For pain, inflammation or any autoimmune condition: take a protease supplement in between meals in addition to digestive enzymes with meals. Anyone with ulcers should consult a physician before taking between-meal protease supplements.


For health maintenance: take a digestive enzyme formula with two meals each day.

Understanding Enzyme Labels

Unlike other supplement labels, those for enzymes don't usually state quantities by weight (milligrams or grams) or by international units. Instead, they indicate potency of each enzyme, with a number followed by an alphabet soup of letters that can be quite confusing, as the letter combination is different for each enzyme. Although you don't have to return to science class to benefit from these supplements, it helps to understand what the numbers and letters represent.

The number next to each enzyme signifies "active units" of that enzyme. "An 'active unit' is a measurement that describes how much of a given food an enzyme has the potential to break down," explains Tom Bohager, author of Enzymes: What the Experts Know.

The letters following the number of active units are a bit more complex. Each enzyme gets its own abbreviation, such as DU or HUT, to describe a specific type of test used to measure its potency. Bohager gives these examples: Protease (for digesting proteins) is measured by HUT, an abbreviation for "hemoglobin units in a tyrosine base." Amylase (for digesting starches) is measured by DU, an abbreviation for "dextrinizing units." While these phrases may seem like distracting jargon to most of us, to the scientifically savvy, they convey relevant information about how potency was determined.

In practice, says Bohager, the measure of potency is an approximation, because in a lab, a technician tested the enzyme in an environment that was much more controlled than the real world of your digestive system. However, the measurements are helpful for comparing products.

When reading labels, look at which enzymes are included in a product and aim for a comprehensive blend. And, you can use the number of active units to compare potency in different formulas. If you notice that one product, unlike others, uses different letters for a given enzyme, you might want to ask store staff for more information, to make sure you're comparing oranges to oranges. Once you've chosen a product, follow its usage directions.

Top 10 Enzymes

  • Alpha-galactosidase - Carbohydrates in legumes that cause flatulence
  • Amylase - Starches
  • Cellulase - Cellulose (fiber) in fruits, vegetables, grains, and seeds
  • Glucoamylase - Maltose, the sugar in grains
  • Invertase - Sucrose (sugar)
  • Lactase - Lactose (milk sugar)
  • Lipase - Fats
  • Malt diastase - Carbohydrates
  • Protease (ideally a blend of alkaline, neutral, and acid proteases)- Proteins
  • Peptidase - Casein (in milk) and gluten (in grains) Note: Peptidase is not designed to cure celiac disease.

Look for a formula that also contains one or more of the following:

  • Enzyme - Helps You Digest and Utilize
  • Xylanase - Plant fibers
  • Pectinase - Pectin, a carbohydrate in fruits
  • Hemicellulase - Plant fibers
  • Phytase - Minerals bound to phytic acid in plants
  • Beta-glucanase - Beta-glucan, a special type of fiber in yeast, grains, and medicinal mushrooms

Written by Vera Tweed for Better Nutrition and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.


Discover how Digestive Enzymes can "change your life."

We may not have written this article but we might as well have because we agree with what's been said. It explains in clarity why you need a top-notch digestive enzyme supplement like ours. 

Our product contains all ten of the top enzymes mentioned above plus enzyme, xylanase, and phytases. Beyond that, it contains probiotics and proprietary technology to increase the effectiveness of the ingredients. It's also plant-based, non-synthetic, non-GMO, vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free. In fact, it contains ingredients that help the break down hard to digest proteins like gluten and casein (dairy).

"This digestive enzyme is great. I've had digestive issues for years, and this is by far the best working digestive enzyme I've ever had! Take it before a meal or anything you know gives you ingestion and all of a sudden you'll notice you have NO issues. So glad I've found this." - Kate via Amazon