Amylase

The amylases are a group of enzymes that play a critical role in human digestion, by speeding up the conversion of starch into various sugar types. Amylase is a key component in the saliva of humans and several other mammal species, representing the first step in the long chemical chain of digestion. Amylase immediately modifies a part of the starch amount into sugars, this explains why some foods with a high starch content, such as potatoes or rice, have a slightly sweet taste in the mouth even if their sugar level is actually quite small.

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There are several types of amylase but the most important ones are alpha amylase and beta amylase. The one found in the human mouth is alpha-amylase, where it is part of saliva and catalyzes the hydrolysis of starch as one of the first steps in the process of digestion. In addition, alpha amylase is present in the pancreas. Most species of mammals also use this compound to help with their digestion. Beta amylase is used by some of the more primitive life forms like mold, bacteria and yeast but it has been detected in a number of plant seeds as well.

When we start chewing our food, alpha amylase starts doing its job inside the mouth. In order to provide nutrients to the blood stream, we need to isolate the glucose that can be naturally found as part of the starch that we ingest. This enzyme has the ability to destroy the polysaccharide bonds that form the structure of starch and link its molecules into chains. As a result, the glucose can be separated and extracted from these chains, allowing the blood to transport it for consumption or storage. The first part of the process happens inside the mouth, while the second takes place in the pancreas. The pancreas is home to more alpha-amylase, breaking up the carbohydrates during digestion. Some people suffer from a digestive disorder and lack enough amylase to process starch completely. In this case, food supplements can be used to increase the level of enzymes to normal.

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The other major type of the enzyme, beta-amylase, works in a similar way. It also breaks down starch into sugars, especially it separates malt sugar. This is the main reason why sweet potatoes have a very sweet taste, despite having a low sugar content. Many fruits and several vegetables taste sweet to us for the same reason.

Measuring its level in urine or blood tests enables medics and testing labs to detect and evaluate pancreatic illness. Based on the quantity of amylase in the blood, modern medicine can detect several problems of the pancreas, including very severe ones like gallbladder or even cancer. Abnormal levels of amylase in urine are also a sign of potential kidney diseases.

Industrially, amylase is widely used in the beer factories. Beta-amylase secreted from yeast is used in brewing beer, its role is to separate the sugars from the starch in barley, producing malted barley. This is crucial in the fermentation process because the sugar is later turned into alcohol. For the same reason, yeast is an important ingredient in the production of bread. The beta-amylase breaks down the flour starch, leavening the dough and giving it a better taste.

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Amylase has found several other industrial uses. Because it can break and soften starch, it makes clothes and fabric softer. This is especially important in denim manufacturing but amylase also serves as a general softener for other materials.

Health benefits

Starch is one of the main human food sources and processing it is a key part of digestion. It all starts in the mouth, where we use the teeth, power of the jaws and chemical compounds in the saliva in order to break down food and begin its assimilation. Most of the glucose in human diet comes from starch, so amylase is critical to its breakdown from starch and the conversion into sugar, used by our body as energy.

However, amylase can't break down starch on its own. It is very important to chew our food properly, using all of our digestive assets in a combined way. Improper or incomplete chewing forces the body to work harder in order to digest the food, decreasing the extraction rate of nutrients and the overall efficiency of digestion. The more we chew the food, the more time we allow for the amylase in the saliva to break down the starch. The longer amylase works on the carbohydrates, the easier our digestion becomes.

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Amylase works in combination with other natural enzymes on the decomposition of carbohydrates from starch, allowing the useful nutrients to be separated and consumed. Our body also has a mechanism to prevent the absorption of too much starch, through the so-called starch blockers, which are amylase inhibitors that limit its effectiveness. Some researchers have investigated the potential use of amylase inhibitors in weight loss. Even if some diets recommend their usage, test results seem to show it is not a very effective way to block the processing of carbohydrates. However, the latest studies contradict the old ones. It seems that very high doses of amylase inhibitors can have a significant effect on the absorption of starch, which in turn decreases fat tissues and doesn't allow the body to create more fat deposits.

A separate use for amylase in human metabolism is inside the pancreas. Pancreatic amylase is distinct from the one found inside the mouth and is produced by the pancreatic cells. It is channelled inside the small intestine and completes the digestion process by breaking down all remaining carbohydrates.

Because of its role in processing sugar, amylase has been the focus of diabetes research. Amylase inhibitors can be used to reduce the level of sugar in the blood stream, which helps not only people with diabetes but also those with other circulatory system issues. This is achieved by ingesting starch combined with certain starch blocker extracts. It has been validated as an effective treatment method for a wide variety of diseases linked with high blood sugar levels.

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Since amylase is the main enzyme that allows our body to digest and break down carbohydrates, not having enough of it leads to severe problems and can be the root cause of other diseases. Starch is a key part of human diet and it's hard to find today food that is not based on it. Low levels of this critical enzyme might prevent people from processing all of the starch in food. As a result, amylase supplements have been produced to compensate. They are frequently prescribed by doctors in the treatment of diseases like: diabetic ketoacidosis, chronic pancreatitis, toxemia during pregnancy or pancreatic pseudocysts. Amylase supplements also help in lethal illnesses like kidney failure or pancreatic cancer.

Amylase inhibitors have a completely opposite effect. While amylase breaks down carbohydrates and aids in their digestion, the inhibitors prevent their processing and slow down the entire digestive mechanism. This is achieved by reducing the quantity of amylase produced inside the body, which in turn decreases the separation of glucose and keeps it at a manageable level. A side effect of the inhibitors is minor weight loss, caused by the lower amount of sugars. In order to significantly reduce weight, big amounts of amylase inhibitors are required. However, the potential negative effects have not been properly investigated. It might cause severe diarrhea, since starch would end up inside the intestines without being processed properly.

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