In order to be digested, fats need to be broken down so they can be absorbed by the intestine. This process is performed by a type of water-soluble enzyme known as a lipase. Most lipases are created by the pancreas, though they are also produced in other parts of the body as well, including the stomach, liver and salivary glands.
A lipase acts to break down fats, or lipids, via hydrolosis. This is a chemical process where a molecule is broken down by adding a water molecule to it. The liver first releases bile salts, which attach to the surface of fat droplets, making them easier for the lipase to break down. The fats are then separated into two basic components, fatty acid and glycerol. These molecules can then be absorbed by the small intestine.
Pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, may impact the production of pancreatic lipase and its levels in the body. There are several possible causes for pancreatitis, including excessive consumption of alcohol, gall stones or infection. It can lead to high amounts of the enzyme in the blood. If pancreatitis is suspected, a doctor may conduct a lipase test, where a sample of blood is taken and the enzyme levels are measured, to confirm.
Too few lipases in the body can cause several issues. As the enzymes are responsible for breaking down fats, people with deficiencies can have high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in their blood, and also may have trouble losing weight. In the long run, these problems to can lead to more serious issues, such as heart disease and diabetes. Sufferers may also experience muscle and colon spasms. Some causes of lipase deficiency are underproduction by the pancreas and certain genetic conditions.
Lipase supplements are available for people with deficiencies. These supplements can be made using animal or plant enzymes and generally come in pill form. In addition to helping people with low levels of the enzymes, they may also be effective in alleviating gastrointestinal issues such as gas, bloating, and indigestion.
People with certain disorders may be unable to absorb enough nutrients from the food they eat, which can often lead to nutrient deficiencies and weight loss. Celiac disease and Crohn's disease, which damage the intestines, may have this affect. Patients with cystic fibrosis may have thick mucus present in the intestine that blocks enzymes and nutrients. For these types of issues, a lipase supplement may be helpful in aiding nutrient uptake.