Lipase is an essential digestive enzyme that breaks down dietary fats into fatty acids and glycerol. It is produced in the pancreas and secreted into the small intestine to facilitate the digestion of triglycerides (fats and oils). Understanding what nutrients can enhance or inhibit lipase activity is important for optimizing fat digestion.
What is lipase?
Lipase is a water-soluble enzyme that emulsifies and hydrolyzes triglycerides into monoglycerides and free fatty acids. Structurally, it is a globular protein made up of an amino acid chain that is folded into a compact shape. The active site of lipase contains a serine residue that acts as a nucleophile to attack the carbonyl carbon of triglyceride molecules. This causes the triglyceride to break apart into di- and monoglycerides, and eventually into glycerol and free fatty acids.
Lipase is secreted by the exocrine pancreas into the duodenum of the small intestine. It works synergistically with other enzymes like colipase, phospholipase A2, cholesterol esterase, and pancreatic amylase to fully digest dietary fats, phospholipids, cholesterol esters, and starches that are consumed in the diet. Bile salts are also required to emulsify large lipid globules into smaller micelles that expose more surface area for lipase to act on.
Why is lipase important?
Lipase serves several important roles in fat digestion:
- Triglyceride breakdown – Lipase hydrolyzes ester bonds in triglycerides to free fatty acids and monoglycerides. This allows fat molecules to be absorbed by intestinal cells.
- Emulsification – Lipase helps bile salts emulsify large lipid globules into smaller micelles, increasing surface area.
- Nutrient absorption – The products of lipase (fatty acids and monoglycerides) can be absorbed through the intestinal lining to provide calories and essential fatty acids.
- Satiety signals – Lipase releases fatty acids that stimulate satiety hormones like cholecystokinin (CCK) to induce feelings of fullness.
- Fat metabolism – Lipase determines the rate and amount of dietary fat that can be used for energy production, fat storage, and other metabolic processes.
Without adequate lipase activity, triglycerides would pass through the intestines undigested, leading to steatorrhea (fatty stools), bowel issues, malnutrition, and deficiencies in essential fatty acids.
What nutrients influence lipase activity?
Several key nutrients can impact lipase activity and fat digestion:
Bile salts like cholic acid and chenodeoxycholic acid are synthesized in the liver, stored in the gallbladder, and released into the small intestine following food consumption. Bile salts have a detergent-like, amphipathic structure that allows them to emulsify large lipid globules into smaller micelles. This emulsification exposes more surface area of the triglycerides to interact with lipase. Individuals who have impaired bile salt production or release may experience fat malabsorption due to inadequate emulsification.
Colipase is a small protein cofactor secreted by the pancreas that binds to lipase and anchors it to lipid micelles. This anchoring prevents lipase from being inactivated by bile salts. Colipase-deficiency is rare but can impair fat digestion and lead to steatorrhea. Supplementing with pancreatic enzymes containing colipase can help improve fat digestion in these cases.
Dietary calcium creates insoluble soaps with fatty acids, which prevents the inhibition and precipitation of lipase by free fatty acids released during triglyceride digestion. This allows lipase to remain active to fully digest fats. Getting adequate calcium in the diet (around 1,000 mg/day) may help optimize lipase activity, especially when consuming a high-fat meal.
Magnesium plays an important role in enzyme activation as a cofactor. It binds to lipase and enables the enzyme to adopt an active conformation. Low magnesium levels can impair lipase activity. Supplementing with magnesium or consuming magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, leafy greens, and whole grains may support healthy lipase function.
Zinc acts as an essential cofactor for many digestive enzymes like lipase, amylase, and protease. It facilitates enzyme activity by stabilizing the binding between enzymes and their substrates. Zinc deficiency can decrease lipase activity and lead to fat malabsorption. Good food sources of zinc include oysters, beef, chicken, nuts, and beans.
Animal and cell studies indicate that vitamin D promotes lipid absorption by stimulating the production of bile salts and the release of lipase from the pancreas following a meal. Increasing vitamin D levels through sun exposure, foods, or supplements may help boost fat digestion in those with vitamin D deficiency.
Vitamin E is a fat-soluble nutrient that may help recycle fat-digesting enzymes like lipase. One animal study in rats showed that vitamin E supplementation increased lipase, amylase, trypsin and chymotrypsin activities. Foods high in vitamin E include vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.
As a B vitamin required for enzyme function, thiamine (B1) plays a role in facilitating lipase activity. Thiamine deficiency was shown in animal models to impair the production of lipase, increasing fat excretion. Eating thiamine-rich foods like pork, sunflower seeds, black beans, nutritional yeast, and macadamia nuts can help maintain healthy levels.
What inhibits lipase activity?
On the other hand, some dietary factors can impair lipase function and fat digestion:
Excess alcohol has been shown to damage pancreas cells that produce digestive enzymes. Chronic heavy drinking can lead to pancreatitis and severely reduce lipase production and secretion needed for fat digestion.
Some research shows that caffeine may inhibit lipase activity, possibly by interfering with colipase binding. However, the effect depends on the dose. Moderate caffeine intake does not appear to significantly impact fat digestion in most people.
Orlistat is a prescription weight loss medication that works by inhibiting pancreatic lipase activity, blocking fat digestion. The undigested fats are then excreted, promoting weight loss. However, it can cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal side effects.
Green Tea Extract
Green tea extract and its components like EGCG have been shown to inhibit pancreatic lipase activity in some test-tube and animal studies. However, human trials testing the impact of green tea or green tea extract on fat absorption are inconsistent.
The active constituent in peppermint oil called menthol has been found to inhibit pancreatic lipase activity in animal models by altering enzymatic kinetics. However, human research is needed to determine whether peppermint oil supplementation impairs fat digestion.
|Nutrients that Increase Lipase Activity||Nutrients that Decrease Lipase Activity|
|Bile salts||Alcohol (excessive)|
|Colipase||Caffeine (high doses)|
|Magnesium||Green tea extract|
Foods that support lipase activity
To help optimize lipase function and fat digestion, consume foods rich in nutrients that facilitate enzyme activity:
- Fatty fish – Salmon, mackerel, herring provide bile-supporting choline, vitamin D, calcium, and zinc.
- Eggs – Supply colipase, vitamin D, and zinc.
- Nuts and seeds – Provide magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, and thiamine.
- Yogurt – Contains calcium, magnesium, zinc, and probiotics to support digestion.
- Legumes – Great plant-based source of magnesium, zinc, thiamine, and fiber.
- Cruciferous vegetables – Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage contain bile-promoting glucosinolates.
- Lean poultry – Provides zinc, niacin, and vitamin B6.
- Whole grains – Supply magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins.
- Citrus fruits – Provide flavonoids that may stimulate bile salt secretion.
Lifestyle factors that support lipase
In addition to diet, other lifestyle factors can help maintain healthy lipase function:
- Avoid excessive alcohol, which can damage the pancreas and impair enzyme production.
- Quit smoking, which increases risk of pancreatitis.
- Maintain normal blood glucose levels, since diabetes can affect pancreas function.
- Prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies by eating a balanced, varied diet.
- Manage gastrointestinal issues, reflux, or infections, which can reduce lipase secretion.
- Exercise regularly to optimize pancreatic function.
- Reduce stress through yoga, meditation, or other relaxation techniques.
Supplements that support lipase
For those with inadequate lipase function, the following supplements may improve fat digestion:
- Pancreatic enzyme supplements – Contain lipase along with protease and amylase. Helpful for exocrine pancreatic insufficiency.
- Bile salts – Ox bile supplements provide bile salts to facilitate fat emulsification.
- Probiotics – Can improve fat absorption. Lactobacillus strains appear most effective.
- Digestive enzymes – Broad-spectrum formulas supply lipase, protease, and amylase.
- Colipase – May benefit those with colipase deficiency causing fat malabsorption.
- Betaine HCl – Increases stomach acid to activate lipase and improve digestion.
Work with a healthcare practitioner to determine if these supplements may be beneficial.
Lipase is a critical pancreatic enzyme that breaks down dietary triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol for fat absorption and utilization. Its activity is facilitated by bile salts, colipase, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin E, and thiamine. Getting enough of these nutrients from foods like eggs, fatty fish, nuts, seeds, yogurt, and whole grains can help optimize lipase function. Lifestyle factors like avoiding alcohol, managing diabetes, and preventing deficiencies also support healthy lipase activity. For those with impaired fat digestion, pancreatic enzyme supplements containing lipase can improve the breakdown and absorption of dietary fats.