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Digestive Enzymes 101: Why They’re Key For Nutrient Absorption & GI Health

Digestive enzymes are essential for optimally breaking down food and absorbing nutrients—but your body doesn’t always make enough. Learn about symptoms associated with poor digestive enzyme production and how to boost your levels with diet and lifestyle changes.

You probably already know that fiber and probiotics are important for maintaining regularity and good gastrointestinal health, but digestive enzymes also play a crucial role. These substances are naturally produced by the body to help you break down food, but sometimes we don’t produce enough—and that can lead to unpleasant symptoms like bloating, cramping, and gas. (This is why we’ve included a blend of 5 different digestive enzymes in Ka’Chava.)

Here, learn more about digestive enzymes, how to boost your body’s own production of digestive enzymes, and how to get more through your diet.

What are digestive enzymes?

While the chewing action of your teeth and the churning of your stomach help mechanically break down food into smaller particles, digestive enzymes chemically break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates (a.k.a. macronutrients) into smaller molecules that can be absorbed through the intestines and into the bloodstream for use in the body. So, without digestive enzymes, you would not be able to fully break down the foods you eat and utilize the nutrients they contain.

Some key digestive enzymes produced by the body are:

  • Amylase: Breaks down complex carbohydrates (made in the mouth and pancreas)

  • Protease: Breaks down proteins (made in the pancreas)

  • Lipase: Breaks down fats (made in the pancreas)

  • Lactase: Breaks down lactose (made in the small intestine)

Digestive enzymes are released at various stages of digestion to ensure the optimal breakdown of food and absorption of nutrients. The first of these enzymes are released through the salivary and lingual glands in the mouth (which initiate the digestion of carbs and fats), then additional enzymes are secreted through the stomach (which digest proteins) and the small intestine (which further digest carbs, proteins, and fats).

Why you might not produce enough digestive enzymes.

Without sufficient digestive enzymes, your body can’t optimally break down foods and absorb nutrients—which, in turn, can slow digestion and contribute to symptoms such as gas, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea, along with poor nutrient absorption. But why wouldn’t you produce enough of these enzymes in the first place?

Some people have a health condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), which is when the pancreas does not produce enough digestive enzymes. This is most often caused by chronic pancreatitis but can also be caused by other conditions that affect digestion, including celiac disease, diabetes, and inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and microscopic colitis. If your doctor determines that you have EPI, you may be treated with a prescription digestive enzyme supplement that is taken with each meal.

Other times, people may be dealing with a less severe decline in digestive enzyme production. Research has found that digestive enzyme secretion naturally declines with age. The way you’re eating could also prime you for insufficient digestive enzyme production. Typically, the act of slowly and thoroughly chewing food triggers the release of digestive enzymes in the mouth as well as digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid in the stomach—but if you're cramming down your food too quickly (think: when you mindlessly eat a sandwich in the car or inhale a salad while answering work emails), you’re not giving your body adequate time to produce the digestive juices necessary to break down food, which may lead to unpleasant GI symptoms.

How to boost your production of digestive enzymes + get more from your diet

If you suspect you have a condition like EPI, getting an appropriate diagnosis and treatment is key. That said, there are some simple ways to help address a subtle decline in digestive enzymes and support overall digestive health. Here are a few to consider:

1. Stay calm and chew thoroughly. 

Ever notice how you eat super quickly when you’re stressed? Well that’s a recipe for digestive upset. Before each meal, make a point to get into a relaxed state (or at least semi-relaxed)—taking a few deep breaths and putting down your phone always helps. Then, make sure you’re chewing each bite thoroughly, as chewing triggers the release of enzymes and primes your whole GI tract for digestion.

2. Eat foods that contain natural digestive enzymes.

For overall digestive health, consuming a minimally processed diet rich in nutrient-dense whole foods, including plenty of veggies, can go a long way. But adding in foods with naturally occurring digestive enzymes may offer an additional benefit. Consider incorporating some of these into your diet. 

  • Ginger: Ginger contains a protease called zingibain, which helps digest protein. Preliminary research suggests ginger also increases the body’s own production of amylase and lipase.
  • Mango: Mangos contain amylases, which assist in the digestion of carbohydrates and starches. 
  • Pineapple: Pineapple contains a protease called bromelain, which helps digest protein. Ever feel like your tongue was burning a bit after eating lots of fresh pineapple? You have bromelain to thank for that. 
  • Banana: Bananas contain amylases and glucosidases, both of which help break down carbohydrates and starches.
  • Kiwi: Kiwi contains a protease called actinidain, which helps digest protein. Some studies suggest that eating kiwis promotes good digestion and regularity.
  • Fermented foods: Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and miso contain probiotics and digestive enzymes—a one-two punch for good digestive health. 

3. Consider Ka’Chava for one of your meals. 

In addition to other digestion-friendly ingredients like fiber and probiotics, Ka’Chava contains a blend of five digestive enzymes to support optimal digestion and nutrient absorption. These enzymes include all those mentioned above (amylase, protease, lipase, lactase) in addition to cellulase. Unlike the others, cellulase isn’t naturally produced by the human body, but it does assist in the breakdown of cellulose, which is a component of plant and vegetable fibers.

The Bottom Line…

Digestive enzymes play a crucial role in optimally breaking down food and absorbing nutrients, so you can feel and function your best. However, certain medical conditions and poor eating habits may stifle your body’s natural production of these enzymes, leading to unpleasant bloating, cramping, diarrhea, and potentially even nutrient malabsorption problems. Making sure you’re taking a moment to de-stress before you eat—and to chew your food thoroughly—can help support your body’s digestive enzyme production. And consuming a diet rich in minimally processed foods that naturally contain digestive enzymes, or taking a digestive enzyme supplement, may also help. (Keep in mind: If you’re experiencing severe GI symptoms, speak to your doctor who can run appropriate lab work and guide you on a proper course of treatment.)

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