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Larry Newman is the Chief Operating Officer, Technical and Regulatory Affairs of Kirkman Group, Inc. (Kirkman). Contact Kirkman at 1-800-245-8282; 6400 Rosewood St., Lake Oswego, OR.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Review: Everything You Wanted to Know About Digestive Enzymes

By Larry Newman


Enzymes are protein-based constituents of living organisms, plant and animal, which regulate the activities of all living cells.
Without enzymes, there would be no life. The human body contains in excess of 3,000 different enzymes that function in chemical reactions, metabolism, digestion, immune response, and many other body processes. Enzymes are considered catalysts of biochemical reactions. Each enzyme in the body has a very specific job to accomplish and rarely has multiple functions. If the enzyme necessary to catalyze a given reaction is deficient or not available, that reaction can’t take place.


Digestive enzymes are those enzymes found in the body that function as biological catalysts to begin the breakdown of foods so that the important nutrients in the food can be properly absorbed and utilized. All food contains nutrients and potential nutritional value; however, until enzymes start the digestive process, the nutrients are “locked up” in the cellular structure and are not yet available to be absorbed by the body. For example, the fiber and vitamins in your breakfast cereal provide no value until your digestive enzymes start the digestion process and unlock the nutrients. Similarly, the meat or fish you consume does not deliver the protein necessary for growth and development until protease enzymes digest the protein.

Proper and complete digestion is essential in maintaining good health because without digestion, the nutrients you consume from the food you eat won’t be adequately absorbed. Digestive enzymes also play a key role in gastrointestinal health because they can exert a powerful influence in addressing a full range of commonly recognized gastrointestinal disturbances including intestinal irritation, maldigestion, malabsorption, intestinal hyperpermeability, gut dysbiosis, and food allergies and sensitivities. Clinical experience with the use of digestive enzymes has shown that these conditions can be supported by the use of broad-spectrum enzyme formulations.


The human body naturally produces digestive enzymes, however the following situations can leave an individual lacking in necessary enzymes:
  • Nutritional deficiency can affect enzyme levels.
  • Enzyme production can decrease with age.
  • Cooking foods destroys naturally-occurring enzymes that work with human digestive enzymes in digesting food.
  • Stress can deplete enzymes.
  • Illness can inhibit enzyme production.
  • Injury can tax enzyme levels.
When we talk about supplementing with digestive enzymes, it is the pancreatic enzymes that we are referring to.  These are the enzymes that have specific jobs and act only on specific types of food substrates.  When digestive enzyme supplementation is called for or recommended by a health professional, it is imperative that the proper combination of enzymes is chosen so as to address the particular digestive issues present.  For example, lipase only digests fats; it does not act on protein or sugar.  Sucrase only digests sugars; it has no effect on fat or protein.  Proteases and peptidases act on protein, casein, and gluten; other enzymes do not. 

A specific enzyme combination must be selected based on an individual’s specific needs.  There are many different enzyme products in the marketplace including:
  • lipase -- specifically addressing fat digestion
  • lactase -- specifically aiding lactose intolerance
  • peptidase/protease -- digest proteins and peptides including casein and gluten
  • DPP-IV (peptidase) -- targeting casein and gluten
  • multi- or broad-spectrum enzymes -- digest all food groups
  • carbohydrate digesting enzymes
If you know specifically that a person needs a particular enzyme, such as lipase for fats, you can look for that specific enzyme-containing product.  Usually, however, individuals are not sure which enzymes are needed, in which case a multi- or broad- spectrum enzyme would be the product of choice.  Broad-spectrum enzyme products help digest all food groups including proteins, fats, starches and other carbohydrates, sugars, celluloses and fiber.  Kirkman® has advanced digestive enzyme products containing Isogest®, a patent pending enzyme component with isomaltase activity.  No other commercially available enzymes contain the Isogest® fraction and, therefore, this isomaltase fraction.  Kirkman's Enzym-Complete/DPP-IV™ II with Isogest® formula and Maximum Spectrum Enzym-Complete/DPP-IV™ Fruit Free with Isogest® formula are the two products of choice when looking for a broad-spectrum enzyme.  The latter product is fruit free, which is important to those individuals sensitive to pineapple or papaya fruit.  Kirkman® also offers Isogest® in a product specifically for carbohydrate digestion called Carb Digest™ with Isogest®.


Many enzyme imbalances require laboratory testing for verification, but there are some visual or sensory signs that may be useful to physicians or individuals spotting a problem or suggesting an enzyme issue. These include:

  • ammonia smell in the urine
  • undigested fibers in the stool
  • abdominal bloating, gas or cramping
  • occasional diarrhea
  • oily or foamy stools
  • tan or grey stools
  • foul-smelling stools 

  • Malabsorption of nutrients can result, which can lead to malnutrition, abnormal growth patterns, improper organ development and immune system impairment.
  • Malnutrition can result in vitamin and mineral deficiencies, poor or impaired wound healing, skin conditions, behavioral problems, intestinal flora imbalances, and lack of immune system support leading to frequent illness.
  • Feeling of fullness or bloating after meals.
  • Gas, diarrhea, or constipation.
  • Poor gastrointestinal health and medical conditions affecting the digestive system, colon or rectum.

Animal-derived pancreatic enzymes from cows and pigs have been used successfully to aid digestion for decades.  Some drawbacks do exist, however, in animal-derived enzymes.  Of concern are:

1.  Some individuals can be sensitive to the animal-derived ingredients.
2.  Animal derived enzymes are not stable in the acid pH of stomach acid, thereby requiring special coating or processing so they go through the stomach undamaged.  This special processing makes them expensive in nature.
3.  The source, health and environmental history of the animals can be an issue.

Kirkman® uses only plant-based enzymes.  Plant-based enzymes are derived from cultivated plant sources, most often the Aspergillus oryzae species of plant mold, although other species of Aspergillus are used for certain specific enzymes.  These enzymes go through extensive purification processes and offer safe and effective alternatives to the animal products.  An extensive filtering process separates the pure enzyme from its original substrate, making these products suitable even for the extremely sensitive individual.  

Plant-based enzymes offer these advantages over the animal enzymes:
  • Better tolerated by the sensitive individual.
  • No concern of the animal source or environment.
  • Starts the digestive process in the stomach, making intestinal digestive functions easier and more efficient.
  • Stable and effective at a full range of pH levels, so they are not inactivated in the acid pH of the stomach.  No special coatings are needed, making plant-based enzymes far more economical than animal-based enzymes.

All of Kirkman's enzyme products are made from plant-derived enzymes and are encapsulated in an all-vegetable capsule manufactured from pine cellulose.

Kirkman's enzymes are:
  • casein free
  • gluten free
  • soy free
  • sugar free
  • preservative free
  • color free
  • free of other common allergens
  • free of sulfites
  • free of fish, peanuts or tree nuts
  • inclusive of the proprietary Isogest®

Enzymes that digest carbohydrates are a major component of broad-spectrum enzymes that attempt to aid in the digestion of all food groups.  The human digestive tract contains seven carbohydrase enzymes that split dietary disaccharides into free monosaccharides.  Prior to Kirkman’s introduction of Isogest®, commercially available digestive enzyme products contained enzyme ingredients that provided the activity of only some of these disaccharidase enzymes.  A very important enzyme called sucrose-isomaltase was only partially represented in these commercial products.  The invertase or sucrase portion of the enzyme was present, but the isomaltase fraction was not -- and for a good reason.  There is no commercially available form of isomaltase available in the world. 

The importance of this missing enzyme fraction was confirmed in January 2004 by Rafail Kushak, PhD, and Tim Buie, MD, of Massachusetts General Children's Hospital in Boston, in an intestinal biopsy study involving 100 special needs children.  The study showed that 60% of these patients had weak lactase activity and 25-40% had weak isomaltase/palatinase activity.  Similar results were noted in an October 2005 paper in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition published by Kushak, Winter, Farber, and Buie of Massachusetts General Hospital; this paper indicated a need for additional carbohydrase enzymes in special needs situations.  These studies were evidence for the need of an enzyme providing isomaltase/palatinase activity to fill a void in commercially-available digestive enzyme products. 

These studies provided the impetus for Kirkman® to begin searching for an enzyme with this isomaltase/palatinase activity.  Kirkman®, in conjunction with the National Enzyme Company of Forsyth, MO, found such an enzyme, which Kirkman trademarked as Isogest®.  Isogest® has the ability to split isomaltose into two molecules of glucose and to split palatinose into one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose.  This is a revolutionary ingredient in the world of enzymology, since commercially available enzyme products never had this isomaltase enzyme capability.  Only Kirkman's enzymes contain Isogest®, for which there is a patent pending.

When there is weak isomaltase/palatinase activity in the body as found in the studies cited, enzyme supplementation is called for.  Prior to Isogest® there was no means through commercially-available enzyme products to get that supplementation.  When insufficient isomaltase/palatinase activity is the case, isomaltose and palatinose -- two complex sugars -- remain partially undigested.  Isomaltose is found in corn syrups, candies and complex starches.  Palatinose is produced in the body primarily as a byproduct of bacterial breakdown of other sugars and starches.  When isomaltose and palatinose remain partially undigested, gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea and other intestinal disturbances can result; this contributes to gastrointestinal pain.  Kirkman's broad-spectrum enzyme products containing Isogest® finally provide a solution to the missing isomaltase enzyme fraction.


Yes, prior to marketing enzymes containing Isogest®, Kirkman® arranged for 12 prominent health professionals who specialize in patients with special needs and special dietary requirements to use enzymes containing Isogest® in their practices in order to verify the efficacy of the products and to ensure the absence of any undesirable side effects.  The following doctors and clinics participated in the study:
  • Dr. Lynne Mielke, East Bay Medical Clinic, Pleasanton, CA
  • Dr. David Berger, Wholistic Pediatrics, Tampa, FL
  • Dr. Andrew Levinson, Vitality Health and Wellness, Miami, FL
  • Dr. John Green, The Evergreen Center, Oregon City, OR
  • Dr. Miriam Jang, San Rafael, CA
  • Dr. James Neubrander, Edison, NJ
  • Dr. Philip DeMio, Seven Hills, OH
  • Dr. Stephanie Cave, Baton Rouge, LA
  • Dr. Anju Usman, True Health Medical Center, Naperville, IL
  • Dr. Jacquelyn McCandless, Woodland Hills, CA
  • Dr. Brian Klepzig, Charlston, IL
  • Dr. Brian Jepson, formerly of Draper, UT (now at Thoughtful House, Austin, TX)

Doctors and parents of the patients were polled as to the effectiveness of the new products. Results were outstanding and side effects virtually non-existent. Kirkman immediately went to market with these exciting new products.

Below is a brief summary of the benefits that the doctors’ and parents’ evaluations of the new products highlighted:
  • less bloating
  • more regular bowel habits
  • less constipation
  • more normal stools
  • better overall digestion with less discomfort
  • firmer stools
  • less gas
  • less diarrhea
  • less sensitivity to dairy and grains
  • less odorous bowel movements
There are several situations that could make an enzyme containing Isogest® very beneficial. Anyone having digestive issues, in general, could benefit. Several special situations also may be supported by products containing Isogest® including:

  1. If you are currently taking any other digestive enzyme product and are not completely satisfied with the results.
  2. If you are specifically having problems digesting carbohydrates, Carb Digest™ could help with the bloating, gas and discomfort associated with poor carbohydrate digestion.
  3. If you are on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) and are still having discomfort. This could be due to the incomplete digestion of isomaltose and palatinose. The late Elaine Gottschall, author of the book Breaking the Vicious Cycle, points out this fact in her book.
  4. If you are on the SCD and expect some minor infractions to occur. The SCD allows the consumption of monosaccharides only, and prohibits the ingestion of disaccharides and polysaccharides. Infractions are difficult to avoid especially when consuming prepared foods and starchy foods.