Digestives enzymes are used to break down the food we eat into smaller and smaller components which can be absorbed in our small intestine. Starchy carbohydrates such as bread and pasta must first be broken down into simple sugars such as glucose and fructose, protein from meat, fish and plant sources must be broken down into various amino acids. and fats must be broken down into free fatty acids (and mono-glycerides).
Digestive enzymes are produced throughout the digestive tract starting in the mouth with salivary amylase (starts carbohydrate digestion) and lingual lipase (fats). The bulk of the digestive enzymes required for digestion are produced by the pancreas while the final stages of the digestive process are taken care of by enzymes produced at the brush border of the small intestine shortly before nutrients are finally absorbed.
It has been suggested that insufficient production of digestive enzymes may contribute to a number of chronic health complaints including indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food allergy and intolerance, and leaky gut syndrome; the latter two as a result of mucosal immune reactions against partially digested food particles. An example of a well-known digestive enzyme deficiency condition is lactose intolerance in which the individual lacks the enzyme lactase and cannot digest the milk sugar lactose and suffers symptoms including bloating, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea after consuming dairy foods.
Laboratory tests have been developed to assess digestive function including pancreatic output of digestive enzymes. These tests include the comprehensive digestive stool analysis (CDSA). Lactose intolerance is diagnosed using the hydrogen breath test (HBT) which measures hydrogen in the breath after consumption of lactose. If lactose intolerance is present bacteria in the gut produce hydrogen from the lactose which is then absorbed and detectable in the breath.
There are many digestive enzyme supplements on the market. Most of these are complexes of the whole range of enzymes required to digest carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. The enzymes may be derived from a combination of plant and animal sources, or solely from plants in vegetarian products. Common enzymes found in supplements are the plant-based protein-digesting enzymes (proteases) bromelain from pineapple and papain from papaya. Animal-based enzyme products are produced from animal pancreas extracts.
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