It’s a lesser known fact that a growing number of health problems can be linked to nutrient malabsorption due to a lack of digestive enzymes. (Amylase, protease and lipase are the three main and most vital enzymes your body utilizes to digest food. Amylase has the responsibility of helping your body process carbohydrates into simple sugars while protease breaks down protein and lipase is in charge of fat break down.
Why should you care about amylase? The role of digestive enzymes is to act as catalysts in speeding up specific, life-preserving chemical reactions in the body. Essentially, digestive enzymes assist in breaking down larger molecules into more easily absorbed particles that the body can use to survive and thrive. Without proper levels of amylase and other digestive enzymes, it really is impossible to have your health be at its best.
What Is Amylase?
By definition, it’s the primary starch-digesting enzyme secreted in the body. To be more specific, it digests carbohydrates (polysaccharides) into smaller disaccharide units, eventually converting them into monosaccharides, such as glucose. Alpha-amylase (α-Amylase) is the major form of amylase found in humans and other mammals and is mainly made the pancreas and salivary glands, but it’s also produced by the small intestine mucosa, ovaries, placenta, liver and fallopian tubes. (1)
The amylase secreted by the salivary glands kicks off the the enzymatic digestion of starches in the mouth as food is chewed and mixed with saliva. It might be surprising, but it’s true that the breakdown of larger, more complex starches into simpler sugars actually starts in your mouth with simple chewing. This is why chewing food thoroughly is truly key to good digestion and optimal overall health.
Amylase is part of a six-step digestive process that begins with chewing in the mouth and triggers the start of a domino effect in firing off mechanisms and secretions:
- Salivary amylase released in the mouth is the first digestive enzyme to assist in breaking down food into its component molecules, and that process continues after food enters the stomach.
- The parietal cells of the stomach are then triggered into releasing acids, pepsin and other enzymes, including gastric amylase, and the process of degrading the partially digested food into chyme (a semifluid mass of partly digested food) begins.
- The acid also has the effect of neutralizing the salivary amylase, allowing gastric amylase to take over.
- After an hour or so, the chyme is propelled into the duodenum (upper small intestine), where the acidity acquired in the stomach triggers the release of the hormone secretin.
- That, in turn, notifies the pancreas to release hormones, bicarbonate, bile and numerous pancreatic enzymes, of which the most relevant are lipase, trypsin, amylase and nuclease.
- The bicarbonate changes the acidity of the chyme from acid to alkaline, which has the effect of not only allowing the enzymes to degrade food, but also bacteria not capable of surviving in the acid environment of the stomach to break it down further.
At this point, if you don’t have a deficit of digestive enzymes, then most of the work is done. However, for many people digestive enzyme supplementation is needed and helps this whole process take place as it should.
What are some of the ways that amylase can benefit your health? Well, aside from the most key and central function to properly digest carbohydrates, it also holds a lot of other valuable health benefits that will probably surprise you.
1. Improved Digestion
Your mouth is the place where both the mechanical and chemical breakdown of your food occurs through the combined use of your teeth, jaws and saliva. Amylases are vital to your digestive process because they’re needed to process any starches in your diet, which are a main source from which people derive glucose, the primary sugar molecule the body uses for energy.
It’s key that you combine your body’s natural amylase-producing ability with your natural ability to chew. Why is this important? Because if food is not properly broken down in the mouth, then your body has more work to do in order to digest and extract nutrients and energy from whatever you eat. By chewing thoroughly, you give the amylase more time to process any carbs that you have consumed, and the more time amylase has to work the better and quicker your overall digestion will be.
In addition, cells in your pancreas make another form of amylase called pancreatic amylase, which passes through a duct to reach your small intestine. Pancreatic amylase completes the digestion of carbohydrates.
2. More Energy
I’m sure you know that food not only provides your body with nutrients, but it also provides it with the energy it needs to keep you going on a daily basis. Glucose is the primary sugar molecule that the body uses for energy, and while you never want to have high glucose levels (think diabetes), you want to obtain some glucose in your diet from healthy sources.
The amylases in your body break starch down into two sugar units, maltose and isomaltose, and then other enzymes, called maltase and isomaltase, hydrolyze these two sugars into the individual monosaccharide glucose. (2) Foods that are high in starch include breads, grains, cereals, pasta, rice, beans, corn, potatoes and peas. If it wasn’t for amylase, your body wouldn’t be able to use foods like these so efficiently to fuel you.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research was designed to determine the serum amylase, blood glucose and the serum lipid profile in 110 type 2 diabetes patients compared to healthy individuals of the same age and sex. The research showed that for the diabetic subjects wherever blood sugar levels were higher, serum amylase activity was found to be significantly lower. This finding was reflective of pancreas malfunction and speaks to the importance of a healthy pancreas producing healthy amounts of amylase. (3)
Another study found that low serum amylase levels are associated with an increased risk of metabolic abnormalities like diabetes as well as metabolic syndrome. (4) Together, these studies show the ability of this digestive enzyme to maintain normal blood sugar levels and help treat or reverse diabetes symptoms.
4. Alternative Cancer Treatment
When it comes to fighting cancer, people that choose to fight it holistically sometimes incorporate digestive enzymes into their natural cancer treatment plans. The Gonzalez regimen, developed by Dr. Nicholas Gonzalez, is one holistic approach to cancer that combines prescribed diets, nutritional supplements, coffee enemas and pancreatic enzymes.
The regimen is aimed at detoxifying the body, correcting nervous system imbalances that might lead to impaired general health and supporting natural immune processes. The pancreatic enzymes are believed to be the primary agents within the regimen thought to have direct anticancer effects. (5)
Enzymes are also a key aspect of the Kelley metabolic protocol to fight cancer, developed by Dr. William Donald Kelley. Kelley, and famous embryologist John Beard before him, believed that in order to beat cancer you don’t create a new method of defense that fails to mimic the human body. Rather, you should create a method of defense that acts just like the human body, and the human body uses pancreatic proteolytic enzymes in the natural fight against cancer. (6)
Both of these treatments are controversial, but some conventional and well-respected cancer treatment centers even agree that patients suffering from cancer, especially pancreatic cancer, can benefit greatly from pancreatic enzymes. Having an insufficient amount of pancreatic enzymes is very common among people with pancreatic cancer, and when the pancreas does not produce enough enzymes to break down food, pancreatic enzyme products are needed. Doctors sometimes prescribe digestive enzymes, including pancreatic enzymes, to patients who have conditions that cause poor absorption. (7)
Cancer itself and conventional cancer treatment are also known to interfere with production and flow of digestive enzymes and insulin, which is why patients should utilize natural approaches as well. (8)
5. Stress Monitoring
Stress is by far one of the worst things in the world for your health, particularly chronic stress. Research is showing that amylase can be a very helpful and accurate marker of stress levels.
One study looked at the whether or not the salivary enzyme alpha-amylase could indicate stress-reactive bodily changes. Researchers repeatedly measured salivary alpha-amylase and salivary cortisol as well as plasma catecholamines and cardiovascular activity before, during and after 30 young men underwent the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST). Results indicated that salivary alpha-amylase is sensitive to psychosocial stress and may be a very helpful additional parameter for the measurement of stress in humans. (9)
Testing can be conducted to measure the level of amylase as well as other enzymes in your blood. Amylase level testing can be done with a blood or urine test. For a urine test, it’s likely a two-hour or 24-hour sampling. For a blood test, blood is taken from a vein in your arm. There is more work involved with collecting your urine over a period of time, but there are also no risks, pain or side effects associated with collecting urine samples. If you don’t like needles then the urine test can be a good option.
Typically, there are only low levels of amylase found in the urine or blood. However, if the pancreas or salivary glands become damaged or blocked then more amylase is often released into the bloodstream and urine. When it comes to blood, amylase levels rise for only a short time. In the urine, amylase may remain high for several days.
Why would a doctor ever test your amylase levels? A test might be conducted for several reasons, including:
- To evaluate the cause of swollen and inflamed salivary glands
- To find out if a patient has pancreatitis or another pancreatic disease
- To determine if a treatment for pancreatitis or other pancreatic diseases is working
If you’re preparing to have your amylase levels tested then you should not consume any alcohol for at least 24 hours prior to testing. If you’re having a blood test then do not eat or drink anything except water for at least two hours before testing. For a 24-hour urine test, make sure that you drink enough fluids during the test to prevent dehydration and to ensure that you collect enough samples.
There are a lot of medications that can affect amylase test results so prior to testing be sure to let your doctor know about any medications or supplements.
A lipase test is often used along with an amylase test to help diagnose and monitor acute pancreatitis, chronic pancreatitis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis and pancreatic cancer. Increases in the level of lipase may signal the worsening of these diseases. A lipase test along with an amylase test can help monitor treatment effectiveness and outcomes.
Amylase Test Results
Testing results are usually available within 72 hours. Normal value ranges can vary slightly among different laboratories. For a urine test, the normal range is typically 2.6 to 21.2 international units per hour (IU/h). (11) For a blood test, the normal range is usually 23 to 85 units per liter (U/L). (12)
Possible reasons for high amylase levels include: (13)
- Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), a pancreatic cyst or pancreatic cancer
- Gallstones that are causing pancreatitis
- Inflammation of the salivary glands, such as mumps
- Bowel obstruction or strangulation
- A stomach ulcer that has caused a hole in the stomach wall
- Diabetic ketoacidosis
- Kidney failure
- A ruptured ectopic pregnancy
- Appendicitis or peritonitis
- Macroamylasemia, an uncommon and harmless condition in which amylase is bound to a protein in the blood
Low amylase levels are also something to be concerned about. The following common health issues could actually be a sign of amylase deficiency: (14)
- Skin rashes
- Gas and constipation
- Mood swings
- Carbohydrate and sugar cravings
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Type 2 diabetes
Amylase Interesting Facts
- Amylase is found in both plants and animals.
- Salivary amylase is also known as ptyalin. Humans have this enzyme in their saliva, but some mammals like horses, dogs and cats do not.
- Enzyme production decreases with age. As we age, our bodies produce less amylase, lipase and protease, which means digestion of carbohydrates, fats and protein can be impaired as we get older.
- Enzymes play a key role in every function in the human body. These protein-based substances are involved in breathing, eating, digestion, kidney and liver function, reproduction, and more.
- Dogs and cats can also benefit from digestive enzyme supplementation. (15)
How to Use
Natural dietary sources of amylase include raw fruits and vegetables, along with sprouted seeds, nuts, legumes and whole grains. Both short- and long-term sprouting helps the body regulate amylase-enzyme activity that’s needed to properly digest glucose, which is especially helpful to diabetics. Royal jelly is also another excellent source.
When it comes to supplements, you’ll find amylase in a general digestive enzyme supplement that includes the other key digestive enzymes as well. Make sure to look for a full-spectrum enzyme blend for general digestive improvement. You can opt for a supplement that is vegetarian or animal-based depending on your preference.
Risks and Side Effects
Digestive enzymes are essentially nontoxic and typically don’t cause side effects. Occasional side effects of digestive enzymes can include mild gastrointestinal distress, diarrhea or allergic reactions. If any of these effects persist or worsen, you should discontinue use of the supplement and speak with your health care provider.
If you take a supplement that includes the digestive enzyme bromelain then you should know that it has possible cross-reactivity and can provoke allergic symptoms in people who are sensitive to wheat, celery, papain, carrot, fennel, cypress pollen and grass pollen, as well as the plant family that includes ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigolds, daisies and echinacea. If you’re allergic to any of these foods or plant, then you may find that you’re allergic to bromelain and vice versa.
Digestive enzymes should only be combined with blood-thinning drugs like warfarin (Coumadin) under a doctor’s supervision. Combining bromelain and papain with blood-thinning prescriptions can further increase the risk of bruising and bleeding. Some evidence also suggests that bromelain may increase the absorption of certain antibiotics, specifically amoxicillin and tetracycline. Digestive enzymes may also enhance absorption of sedative medicines like benzodiazepines so digestive enzyme supplements should not be combined with sedatives. (16)
Tell your doctor immediately if you have any serious side effects after taking digestive enzymes, including severe abdominal discomfort, joint pain, frequent or painful urination, or allergic reaction.
- Amylase, protease and lipase are the three main and most vital enzymes your body utilizes to digest food.
- Amylase is the primary starch-digesting enzyme secreted in the body.
- It’s possible to have your amylase levels tested via a blood or urine sample.
- Having amylase levels that are too high or too low are both problematic.
- You can increase your intake of amylase and other digestive enzymes by following a whole foods diet loaded with fresh, raw fruits and vegetables, as well as sprouted nuts, grains, seeds and beans.
- If you need help increasing your digestive enzyme levels, you can supplement your diet with a full-spectrum enzyme blend that can help improve your digestive health as well as your overall health.