Pancreatic enzymes vs. enzyme supplements

Pancreas small iStock 964884304

The pancreas is an important organ that produces both hormones and enzymes that help break down the food we eat. The pancreas is found in the upper abdomen next to the curved portion of the small intestine. 

How do pancreatic enzymes work?

A duct from the pancreas inserts into the small intestine. This is how enzymes and bicarbonate produced in the pancreas enter the gut. 

The duct holds the enzymes until the gut detects the entrance of food from the stomach. This occurs about 2 or 3 hours after you eat a meal. 

The food mass is acidic due to the hydrochloric acid produced by the stomach. It is this acidity that triggers the pancreatic duct to compress and push out bicarbonate to neutralize the acid. 

The change from acid to neutral pH allows the pancreatic enzymes to work and start the chemical breakdown of food. 

Food is then broken down into amino acids, sugars, and fatty acids, which are subsequently absorbed from the gut to enter the body’s circulatory system.

The types of pancreatic enzymes are:

  1. Proteases – break down proteins into amino acids
  2. Carbohydrases – break down carbohydrates into sugars
  3. Lipases – break down triglycerides into short-chain fatty acids

Why would we consider taking enzyme supplements? 

For some, it is about replacing a missing enzyme. 

An example would be those who are lactose intolerant. Lactase is an enzyme that breaks down a carbohydrate called lactose into simple sugars – glucose and galactose, which can then be absorbed from the gut. 

It is normal for levels of lactase to decrease as we age. 

Lactase supplements have been available for years and work just as well as the missing gut enzyme.

But more importantly, enzyme supplements change the timing of food breakdown. 

Very little food is broken down in the stomach, which produces only a couple of enzymes

Pepsin is the major enzyme in the stomach, but its primary function is to help activate the pancreatic enzymes once the food enters the small intestine.

Many people have food intolerances. These intolerances can be to wheat, dairy, soy, and numerous other compounds found in foods. 

Often these intolerances can be aided if the structure of the offending food can be changed. Enzymes can change the structure of food proteins, carbohydrates, and fats by breaking them down into smaller parts. 

Relying on your body’s pancreatic enzymes to do so may be risky because the foods and enzymes are already in the gut - and so can be absorbed and result in the symptoms of intolerance. 

But enzyme supplements have some advantages over pancreatic enzymes. 

Most of the enzymes found in supplements are active in acidic conditions, unlike pancreatic enzymes. 

This means that an enzyme supplement taken with a meal will start working on proteins, carbohydrates, starches, and fats while the food is still in the stomach. 

The enzymes will change the structure of the food components before the food enters the small intestine. 

Unlike the gut, very little nutrient absorption occurs in the stomach. 

Only water, ethanol, sugars, some vitamins, and certain drugs can be directly absorbed from the stomach into the circulation. Proteins and  protein fragments known as peptides cannot be absorbed. 

This means that many can use enzymes to break down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats before they enter the gut and be absorbed:

  • Proteins are broken down into protein fragments and amino acids. This action reduces the chances of producing a food intolerance to the food protein.
  • Lactose is broken down before it can enter the gut and cause bloating, cramping, and diarrhea. 
  • Dietary fats can be broken down in the stomach by lipase enzymes which can prevent the slowing of stomach emptying caused by high-fat foods. 
  • Carbs and starches can be broken down into sugar in the stomach, and the sugar is then absorbed from the stomach. This allows glucose to be absorbed over a longer period of time during the digestive process. Carbohydrase enzymes such as amylase, glucoamylase, glucanase, and cellulase start breaking down carbs much sooner and prevents undigested carbs from becoming a food source for bacteria and yeast in the gut.

Results with enzyme supplements are typically seen within the first few meals, giving you a quick and easy way to judge effectiveness. Enzymes can be taken as needed, whether it’s for an occasional specific food, or with each meal for general digestive support.

Here’s what to remember about enzymes and the pancreas:

  • The pancreas produces enzymes for digestion.
  • Enzyme supplements can provide digestive support beyond what pancreatic enzymes offer.
  • Enzyme supplements survive the stomach acid and break down food sooner than pancreatic enzymes.
  • Enzyme supplements change the structure of food proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
  • Enzyme supplements may help with digestive issues that occur later in the gut such as bloating, cramping, and loose stools.
  • Results from enzyme supplements are typically seen within the first few meals.

Enzyme supplements can complement our body’s own pancreatic enzymes for improved overall digestive wellness. Houston Enzymes offers a range of products your unique digestive needs.



Posted in Food Intolerances, Digestion;