Digestive Enzymes: How Do They Work?

Digestive Enzymes: How Do They Work?

If you don’t know what digestive enzymes are, don’t worry, as we’ve all been there at some point! The term refers to a group of enzymes that have the task of breaking down polymeric macromolecules into smaller building blocks. The final goal is represented by the absorption into the cells of the human body.

In other words, digestive enzymes are crucially important for breaking down food in our own digestive system. One incredible fact about digestive enzymes is that they are highly specific and will only work on certain types of molecules. For instance, lipase breaks down fats, amylase breaks down carbohydrates, and protease breaks down proteins.

How do digestive enzymes work?

Digestive enzymes work by facilitating the breakdown of complex food molecules, transforming them into simple and more absorbable forms that the body is able to use to gain energy and harness other biological processes.

Let’s go into more detail to understand how digestive enzymes work:

  1. Enzyme production: Various glands and organs in the body are capable of producing digestive enzymes along the digestive tract. The stomach, the small intestine, the pancreas, and even the salivary glands are able to produce digestive enzymes.
  2. Enzyme release: Digestive enzymes will head over to various regions of the digestive tract as a response to the presence of food. For instance, when you start chewing and mixing food with your saliva, the salivary amylase will be released in the mouth.
  3. Substrate specificity: Each of the digestive enzymes will be specific to a particular type of nutrient.
  4. Hydrolysis: Enymes will facilitate digestion through the hydrolysis process. This allows the enzymes to break chemical bonds between the molecules of the food substrate by adding water molecules. The outcome will be represented by the breakdown of complex molecules into simple ones.
  5. Optimal pH and Temperature: Different enzymes will work at the optimal level at specific pH levels and temperatures. For instance, pepsin, which is able to function in the stomach, will work best in a highly acidic environment.
  6. Enzyme activation: Some of the enzymes will be secreted in an inactive form, which means that they need to be activated in the right environment.
  7. Absorption: After food molecules are broken down into simpler forms, such as fatty acids, glucose, or amino acids, it will be possible for them to be easily absorbed because of the walls of the small intestine. Thus, they go into the bloodstream. The absorbed nutrients will then be transported to the body’s cells to produce energy.
  8. The completion of digestion: The whole process of digestion, starting from the mouth and all the way to the small intestine, ensures that proteins, carbohydrates, and fats will be broken down into small units so that absorption can occur. Material that hasn’t been digested, along with waste products, will move to the large intestine for processing and elimination in the form of feces.

The digestion process already begins in our mouth as we eat something. The saliva starts breaking down food. Digestive enzymes that occur naturally are proteins that our body is able to create to break down the food we eat and help digestion.

The pancreas plays the role of the enzyme “powerhouse” when it comes to digestion, although the stomach and small intestine also contribute. The pancreas is able to produce the most important digestive enzymes.




Even since he was a child, Cristian was staring curiously at the stars, wondering about the Universe and our place in it. Today he's seeing his dream come true by writing about the latest news in astronomy. Cristian is also glad to be covering health and other science topics, having significant experience in writing about such fields.

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