Enzymes are protein catalysts produced by the body which are identified by the suffix -ase. Enzymes are responsible for the breakdown of compounds and for regulating the speed at which metabolic processes take place. In this case, the processes involved are concerned with digestion. Digestion is a complex process, whereby foods and complex nutrients are broken down into units that the body is able to use.
Digestive enzymes are all involved in the hydrolysis (breakage of a bond with the addition of water) of large food molecules. There are 3 major types of digestive enzyme: those digesting proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
The proteolytic enzymes are involved exclusively in the digestion of proteins. Protease is found in the stomach, pancreatic and intestinal juices. Other proteolytic enzymes include pepsin, trypsin, pancreatin and chymotrypsin. In addition, there are the enzymes bromelain and papain from pineapple and papaya respectively. These enzymes work together in the body to provide units small enough to be absorbed.
The enzymes that are used for the digestion of fats are called lipases. These work to break down fats into their components - fatty acids and glycerol. These end products of fat digestion are absorbed in the small intestine.
Amylase is the main enzyme used for the breakdown of carbohydrates. It is produced in the mouth and is therefore present in saliva. Amylase is also secreted into the pancreatic and intestinal juices.
In addition to these basic digestive enzymes, there are a whole range of other complementary enzymes that work together to produce the appropriate end products.
Lactase is the enzyme responsible for the digestion of the milk sugar lactose so that it can be easily absorbed in the small intestine (1).
Enzymes are normally produced in adequate amounts to digest the foods that are eaten. However, as we mature in years or as a result of illness, the Digestive System may become less efficient and the amounts of enzymes produced may become insufficient.
Due to insufficient secretion of the enzyme lactase, some people may experience difficulty digesting the lactose in milk and other dairy products. Lactose Intolerance is identified by symptoms including severe Bloating, Pain in the abdomen, Diarrhoea and weight loss. Supplements containing the enzyme lactase are effective in the management of these symptoms and helping with the breakdown of lactose (1,2).
Some people experience Bloating and a feeling of "fullness" that persists long after a meal is consumed. This can cause disturbed sleep, flatulence, Headaches and abdominal Pains. Others may produce an abnormally small amount of digestive enzymes. This may result with increasing age or after major surgery concerned with the Digestive System. Supplements providing a mixture of the major digestive enzymes may help to reduce these symptoms and also help to digest the dietary components into fuel for the body.
Digestive enzymes may help increase healing time of Bruises and mild athletic injuries, as shown in two controlled studies (3,4).
Digestive enzymes appear to be safe for prolonged use. However, they may increase damage to exposed tissue in an ulcer. Also, one enzyme, pancreatin, may disrupt folate absorption (5).
INTERACTIONS AND CONTRA-INDICATIONS
Extra folate may be needed if taking pancreatin.
1. "The Natural Pharmacy", S Lininger, Prima Health, 1998.
2. Shukla H. Lactose Intolerance in health and disease. Nutrition and Food Science, 2:66-70 1997.
3. Zuschlag JM. Double-blind clinical study using certain proteolytic enzyme mixtures in karate fighters. Working paper. Mucos Pharma GmbH (Germany): 1-5, 1988.
4. Rathgerber WF. The use of proteolytic enzymes (Chymoral) in sporting injuries. S Afr Med J 45: 181-183, 1971.
5. Russell RM, et al. Impairment of Folic Acid absorption by oral pancreatic extracts. Dig Dis Sci 25: 369-373, 1980.