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Enzymes and your pancreas


Devin Houston, Ph.D.


One of the most frequent questions I receive is whether oral plant-based enzymes have an effect on pancreatic enzyme secretion. My answer has generally been "No, they do not influence the production of pancreatic enzymes".

Here I want to go into some detail on the above answer. I have to warn the readers that some of the following is a little technical.

The pancreas has two functions: endocrine and exocrine.

The endocrine part produces insulin and glucagon which help regulate blood sugar levels and is highly regulated by feedback mechanisms. The exocrine part produces digestive enzymes, but the mechanisms involved in regulation are a little more complex and seem to have several levels.

The primary regulation of enzyme production is hormonal. Cholecystokinin (CCK) and secretin are the two main hormones involved. But their production is triggered by a chemical regulator, namely, the lowering of the pH by acidic food emptying from the stomach. Cells in the duodenum detect the acid which then triggers production of the CCK and secretin, which stimulate secretion of the enzymes. Secretion is different from production, however. The digestive enzymes are continuously produced by the pancreas and stored in the pancreatic duct. CCK and secretin trigger the duct to convulse and push out the stored enzymes. This is the primary level of pancreatic enzyme regulation.

However, there are some researchers who maintain that an enzyme-mediated feedback regulation of pancreatic enzymes exists. This is based on research showing that if you place an inhibitor of the pancreatic enzyme trypsin in the duodenum (first part of small intestine), you see an increase in pancreatic enzyme output. A Polish study in 2003 stated that high doses of oral pancreatic enzyme supplements inhibited the pancreatic enzyme elastase, but actually increased the enzyme chymotrypsin. The results were reversible, stopping the enzymes caused levels to return to normal. Only protease enzyme was affected, not carbohydrase or lipase enzymes. This only occurred at the highest dosing level used. A Swiss study in 1998 stated no changes occurred.

So a bit of controversy remains, but there is evidence that the presence of pancreatic protease in the upper GI can inhibit certain enzymes produced by the pancreas. Most researchers (as I) feel the oral enzyme effect is indirect, possibly caused by production of gastric peptides that could stimulate CCK and secretin production.

However, no study has been performed using plant-based enzymes to assess the effect on pancreatic enzyme output. Note that I emphasized the words pancreatic in the last paragraph. Oral pancreatic enzymes are very similar in structure to human pancreatic enzymes, even though they come from pig or cow. The plant-based enzymes, however, are much different in structure than the oral pancreatic enzymes. As such, I don't believe the plant-based enzyme would work as regulators of pancreatic enzyme production. The enzymes involved would have to be similar in structure to the pancreatic protease trypsin, and plant-based enzymes are quite different from trypsin.

Forgive the technical jargon, but I do want to assure our customers that the bulk of the research indicates that no effect on pancreatic enzyme output occurs with plant-based enzymes. While we never say "never" when it comes to research, I feel the data presented is applicable only to high doses of oral pancreatic enzyme supplements, and not to microbial, fungal-derived or fruit-derived enzymes.

- Devin Houston
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