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What Are Pancreatic Enzyme Supplements?

By Clara Kedrek
Updated May 17, 2024
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Pancreatic enzyme supplements are pharmaceutical agents given to replace some of the function of the pancreas in patients who have impaired pancreatic function. They contain enzymes including lipase, protease, and amylase. The supplement is given as pills taken with meals in order to aid in the digestion of the food eaten at that time. Side effects from the medication can include abdominal pain, headache, and rarely, a condition called fibrosing colonopathy.

Normally, the pancreas plays an important role in the body’s digestive system by producing a number of enzymes that help facilitate the breakdown of food into its component parts. These enzymes are secreted into the duodenum, which is the first part of the small intestine. Various enzymes in the gastrointestinal tract help to break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Without hthese enzymes, patients are not able to fully absorb their food and can develop a number of different side effects.

There are a couple of different preparations of pancreatic enzyme supplements that can be administered to patients. One form, pancreatin, is only available in limited parts of the world. Pancrelipase is used more commonly, and is available by prescription in the United States. It contains enzymes including lipase, amylase, and protease.

The main indication for the use of pancreatic enzyme supplements is to treat patients who have lost some of their pancreatic function. Most commonly this occurs as a result of chronic pancreatitis, which is a condition in which long-term inflammation of the pancreas from different types of irritations, such as heavy alcohol use, causes damage to the pancreas. Patients who have had pancreatic resections, either as a result of a cancer of the pancreas or from acute pancreatitis, could also have diminished pancreatic activity.

Determining the proper dosage of pancreatic enzyme supplements can be difficult, and often requires a process of trial and error. Dosing can vary depending on how much fatty food patients eat. Often the medication must be given along with every meal in order to obtain the best results.

Common side effects from pancreatic enzyme supplements can include headache, abdominal pain, dizziness, bloating, and increased gas production. If taken alone, the medication can irritate the intestinal lining. Patients who receive high doses can develop a condition called fibrosing colonopathy, resulting in a narrowing of the intestines, which can cause intestinal obstruction or bloating. Doctors are careful to prescribe the lowest effective dose of this medication in order to prevent the development of this complication.

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