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The digestive system converts the foods we eat into their simplest forms: glucose, amino acids and fatty acids, so that they can be utilized for energy. In order for this to happen, the food must be broken down by digestive enzymes. Digestive enzymes are produced and secreted by the gastrointestinal system to degrade fats, proteins, and carbohydrates; they are naturally occurring in some food sources like pineapple and papaya, as well as in fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut and kimchi.
The benefits of digestive enzymes have been well documented in scientific literature. Enzymes that aid in digestion have been ingested for thousands of years in the form of food products. As supplements, digestive enzymes have been used for at least 70 years. Digestion is a multistep process that begins in the mouth where food is ground up by the teeth and moistened with saliva to make it easy to swallow. Enzymes found in saliva help to facilitate the breakdown of food and stimulate the readying of several organs critical to the digestive process. The process continues in the upper and lower digestive tract via the release of various enzymes. The pancreas is the enzyme “powerhouse” of digestion. It produces the most important digestive enzymes: amylases, proteases and lipases, which are the enzymes that break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats (1).
The Exocrine Pancreas
Pandol SJ, San Rafael (CA): Morgan & Claypool Life Sciences; Digestive Enzymes., 2010
Digestive enzymes are vital to the breakdown of food into absorbable nutrients. When digestive enzymes are lacking it can lead to uncomfortable symptoms. There are three types of digestive enzymes: amylases, proteases and lipases. Each plays a different role in the process of digestion; amylases break down carbohydrates, proteases break down proteins and lipases break down fats.
A study that looked at the impact of lipase supplementation prior to eating a high fat meal found that study participants had significantly less GI discomfort compared to placebo. Study participants reported that the fatty meal induced significant stomach fullness, and indigestion in both the test and control groups from time of ingestion to 10 minutes after the meal. Stomach fullness was significantly lower in the lipase-supplemented group than the placebo group at 20 and 30 minutes after the meal (1).
A well known enzyme that can be of benefit to lactose intolerant individuals is lactase. Lactase is necessary for the breakdown of milk; decreased lactase levels can cause gas and discomfort after consumption of milk or milk based products. Researchers evaluated the efficacy of adding lactase to milk prior to consumption and found that study participants saw a decrease in gastrointestinal symptoms associated with lactose intolerance. Study participants reported better digestive function, with fewer unwanted symptoms (2).
Another study looked at the impact of supplementing with alpha-galactosidase and gas. The study found that healthy individuals who ingested 300 or 1200 GalU of alpha-galactosidase or placebo during a test meal containing 420 g of cooked beans had a significant reduction of both breath hydrogen excretion and severity of flatulence. The results indicate that alpha-galactosidase may reduce gas production following a meal rich in fermentable carbohydrates and may be helpful in individuals with gas-related symptoms (3).
Lipase supplementation before a high-fat meal reduces perceptions of fullness in healthy subjects.
Levine ME, Koch SY and Koch K., Gut and Liver; 9(4): 464-469, 2015
Effect of exogenous beta-galactosidase in patients with lactose malabsorption and intolerance: A crossover double-blind placebo-controlled study.
Montalto M, Nucera G, Santoro L, Gurigliano V, Vastola M, Covino M, Cuoco L, Manna R, Gasbarrini A, and Gasbarrini G., Eur J Clin Nutr.; 59(4): 489-93 , 2005
The effect of oral alpha-galactosidase on intestinal gas production and gas-related symptoms.
Di Stefano M, Miceli E, Gotti S, Missanelli A, Mazzocchi S, Corazza GR., Dig Dis Sci.;52(1):78-83., 2007