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The digestive enzymes—proteolytic enzymes, lipases, and amylases—are generally taken together. Pancreatin, which contains all three digestive enzymes, is rated against a standard established by the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). For example, “4X pancreatin” is four times stronger than the USP standard. Each “X” contains 25 USP units of amylase, 2 USP units of lipase, and 25 USP units of protease (or proteolytic enzymes). Three to four grams of 4X pancreatin (or a lower amount at higher potency) with each meal is likely to help digest food in some people with pancreatic insufficiency.
Those with chronic pancreatitis need to discuss enzyme intakes with their physician. Under medical supervision, seriously ill people with pancreatic insufficiency caused by pancreatitis are given very high levels of enzymes to improve fat digestion. In one successful trial, enough pancreatin was used with each meal to supply slightly over 1,000,000 USP units of lipase.79 Because pancreatin is rapidly emptied from the stomach during digestion, people taking these enzymes may obtain better results by spreading out supplementation throughout the meal.80
Supplemental enzymes that state only product weight, but not activity units, may lack potency.
Only small amounts of the animal-based proteolytic enzymes, trypsin and chymotrypsin, are found in the diet; however, the pancreas can synthesize these enzymes. The plant-based proteolytic enzyme bromelain comes from the stems of pineapples and is useful in many conditions. Papain comes from unripe papayas. All of these enzymes are available as supplements.
People with pancreatic insufficiency and cystic fibrosis frequently require supplemental pancreatic enzymes (which include proteolytic enzymes, lipases, and amylases). In addition, those with celiac disease81 or Crohn’s disease82 and perhaps some people suffering from indigestion83 may be deficient in pancreatic enzymes. As bromelain and papain are not essential, deficiencies do not exist.
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The information presented in Aisle7 is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2016.