As I’m sure you can relate, I’ve had my fair share of bad digestive experiences. Many of these moments haven unfortunately been while I’m with family and friends. Let me set the scene. I’ve just had a delicious dinner with great company. As we are sitting around the table talking, I feel those initial twinges of abdominal pain that I know all too well. Not wanting things to get worse, I quietly ask a friend if they have an Advil or Tylenol that I can take. They immediately launch into a well-meaning, concerned interrogation. Once they find out it’s my digestive system, they start suggesting remedies.
I’ve heard quite a few treatment suggestions in my day; however, I recently heard of something new to me – digestive enzymes. Naturally, I was intrigued because I hadn’t heard of using digestive enzymes before, so the science geek in me wanted to look into it.
Please Note: You always want to ask your doctor or pharmacist before trying a new product, to make sure the product has some evidence behind it to prove its effectiveness and safety.
What are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are compounds that are secreted from various organs in our bodies. They are designed to help us break down and digest food. Although there are various types of digestive enzymes made by the body, they can be grouped into three major types: amylases, proteases and lipases.
Amylases: Enzymes that break apart carbohydrate molecules, and are secreted in the saliva in the mouth and from the pancreas into the intestines.
Proteases: Enzymes that break apart protein molecules, and are secreted by the stomach and from the pancreas into the intestines.
Lipases: Enzymes that break apart fat molecules, and are secreted from the pancreas into the intestines.
Did you know that IBS can affect the digestion of fat? Find out how in our article “Fat and Digestion”.
Over-the-Counter (OTC) Digestive Enzymes
Prescription digestive enzymes supplements were originally created for people who suffer with pancreatic insufficiency. This means that their pancreas doesn’t produce enough enzymes to digest their food properly. Pancreatic insufficiency usually develops from prolonged inflammation of the pancreas, cystic fibrosis or a blockage, where the enzymes can’t move properly into the intestine.
Prescription pancreatic enzyme supplements have research supporting their use and have been successfully used in treating patients with pancreatic insufficiency. As a result, companies started to create less concentrated enzyme supplements to sell over the counter intended to help people suffering with digestive health issues. These products are usually a blend of amylase, protease, lipase, and plant-source enzymes like bromelain and papain (naturally found in pineapple and papaya). These plant sourced enzymes are types of proteases, and are supposed to help breakdown protein.
The idea behind OTC digestive enzyme supplements for gastrointestinal distress is that they are supposed to help digest the food before the bacteria in the gut gets a chance to use it. In theory, it prevents the fermentation of undigested food by gut bacteria to reduce bloating, gas and abdominal pain.
Your gut bacteria play a large role in your symptoms of IBS. Learn more in our article “3 Things You Need to Know About Your Gut”.
Do Digestive Enzyme Supplements Work for IBS?
There is very little research on the effects of digestive enzyme supplements on gastrointestinal symptoms. As of right now, we do not have enough evidence to support recommending their use. Additionally, even though we have some research showing the benefits of using enzyme supplementation in those with pancreatic insufficiency, the products used are prescription grade. This means that they contain high concentrations of the enzymes. With over-the-counter products, the concentration is lower, meaning there are less enzymes and the products may not work as intended.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that we can’t recommend using OTC digestive enzyme supplements at this time for gastrointestinal issues. Although they seem to be safe, the lack of evidence behind their efficacy and cost deters me. Overall, I’d much rather you spend your hard earned dollars on something that has been scientifically proven to help! Your best bet is to first seek help from a doctor to get testing done for gastrointestinal disorders. If you have been diagnosed with IBS, I recommend creating a treatment plan with your doctor that encompasses working with a registered dietitian, who can help guide you through the Low FODMAP Diet.
For those who don’t know, the Low FODMAP Diet is a scientifically-based treatment for people who suffer from IBS that improves symptoms in 70% of people! Want to learn more? Get this free guide:
Remember, even if something is generally recognized as safe, it’s a good idea to always talk to your pharmacist first, since everyone’s circumstances and health are unique.
If you’re looking for support and more information to help you with the Low FODMAP diet, read more about the Beyond FODMAPs Insider’s Club. This is the best way to work with me in the program I offer to meet you where you are, provide you with credible, up-to-date advice and information to get you feeling better and get back to enjoying your life. I’d love to have you join us as a member.
Because there is so little research on this topic, I would love to hear from you. Let us know in the comments if you have tried digestive enzymes for digestive discomfort and whether they worked for you. Here’s hoping that more scientists investigate this topic further so we can get more information on how to best treat IBS!
Wishing you good gut health & wellness,
Stephanie and The Team
Edakkanambeth Varayil J, Bauer BA, Hurt RT. Over-the-counter enzyme supplements: what a clinician needs to know. Mayo Clinic proceedings. 2014;89(9):1307-12.
Halland M, Talley NJ. New treatments for IBS. Nature reviews. Gastroenterology & hepatology. 2013;2012;10(1):13.