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Amylase is an enzyme that is found naturally in the digestive tract. Its job is to break down starch in food, so that the body can use it for energy. An amylase inhibitor is a substance that blocks the action of amylase, and some are found naturally in foods such as white beans. Scientific studies appear to indicate that amylase inhibitors can help reduce blood sugar levels in diabetics and also may have a positive effect on weight loss.
The body takes in food so it can break it down for nutrients and energy. Starch is a high energy type of food, and the body therefore has evolved a specific enzyme, which is amylase, to break it down into usable bits. A drawback to this evolved mechanism for starch usage is that the energy from the starch can contribute to obesity and Type 2 diabetes in people who do not eat a healthy diet. To help diabetic people control their blood sugar, and obese people lose weight, scientists are investigating the ability of individual substances to have an amylase inhibitor effect on the body.
A variety of natural substances appear to contain molecules that have amylase inhibitor effects. Wheat and white kidney beans are the main sources, as of 2011, and generally, scientists test concentrated extracts of these molecules, and not the vegetables or grains themselves. One possible reason that a plant may contain an amylase inhibitor is that the molecule may protect against insects or animals choosing to eat the plant. Centuries of domestication of plants may have changed the nutritional profile of the plants to be more tasty, while still containing some of the original protective molecules.
An enzyme is basically a molecule with a particular three-dimensional structure that can lock onto a specific target substance. What an amylase inhibitor does is latch onto this molecule, and prevent it from recognizing starch. Without the starch identification, the enzyme cannot function, and the starch moves through the digestive process unaltered. If an amylase inhibitor works efficiently, the energy from the starch does not enter the body, and the person does not see a spike in blood sugar from the food, or put on weight from the starch energy.
As of 2011, amylase inhibitors do not appear to be as efficient as necessary to be widely used in weight loss or diabetes treatment. Research is ongoing, however, and some versions are already on the market as plant extracts. As the substances may have effects on blood sugar, however, people with diabetes need medical advice before using the products. Further research can potentially also detail the possible side effects of the amylase inhibitors, but no other serious side effects have yet been noted.