Digestive enzymes are proteins that regulate the chemical reactions the body uses to digest food; the enzymes break down the food into nutrient pieces until they are small enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream and carried throughout the body.
Because digestive enzymes help the body break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, the theory is that supplementing the body's supply of these enzymes will promote healthy digestion and relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Several organs, including the pancreas, the small intestine, the salivary glands, the stomach, and liver, produce digestive enzymes.
- Supplements can be made from animals, plants, and microbial sources.
- Scientific data on the use of digestive enzymes for IBS is not conclusive, although researchers have detected promising connections.
Why use digestive enzymes?
In the first instance, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes to help treat the symptoms of IBS.
Unfortunately, for many of the 1 in 5 Americans who have IBS, frequently used medications do not always provide relief.
As a result, doctors often recommend lifestyle changes as the first form of treatment. Lifestyle changes include exercising regularly, reducing stress, and modifying the diet to remove trigger foods. Sometimes, a doctor will prescribe medications for diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain to treat the symptoms of IBS.
Sometimes, none of these treatments work. As a result, doctors may try other treatment options.
Types of enzymes
Specific digestive enzymes take their name from what they break down. For example, the enzyme lactase helps the body break down lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products.
There are different classes of enzymes that are grouped according to the chemical process they use. For example, all digestive enzymes are considered hydrolases, because they use water molecules to break food down into its basic building blocks.
Do they work?
Although more research is needed, promising results have been reported.
One study found that when individuals who frequently suffered from diarrhea after meals took the enzyme pancrelipase (PEZ) before eating, they reported a reduction in their symptoms.
Another study found that when people with IBS took Biointol, a combination of digestive enzymes and soluble fibers, they noticed a significant reduction in stomach discomfort, gas, and bloating.
However, it did not seem to have any impact on other IBS symptoms, such as constipation or diarrhea, and may have prompted an uptick in the urgency of bowel movements.
Symptoms of IBS may be reduced by taking digestive enzyme supplements which can help the body to digest food.
For example, since 1 out of every 3 people with IBS also has problems digesting specific foods, it is possible that taking digestive enzyme supplements known to help the body digest these foods might reduce symptoms of IBS.
Studies have shown that when people with IBS whose symptoms are triggered by dairy products take the digestive enzyme lactase before consuming dairy products, they are much more able to tolerate these foods.
Pancrelipase (PEZ) can help the body digest fats, sugars, and proteins.
Some studies have found it to be effective in reducing IBS symptoms if taken before eating.
Sold under the commercial name Creon, PEZ is a combination of lipase, protease, and amylase, which are three enzymes produced by the pancreas. Doctors may prescribe PEZ for individuals who have a poorly functioning or damaged pancreas.
Are they safe?
Many forms of digestive enzyme supplements are widely available over the counter, and they are mostly considered to be safe when taken as recommended.
Some studies have suggested that bromelain, a digestive enzyme supplement made from pineapples, interferes with platelets in the bloodstream. This means that individuals taking blood thinners should limit their use of bromelain, to avoid excessive blood thinning.
Some research suggests that it is important to note whether digestive enzyme supplements are made from animal or microbial sources because that can significantly affect the potency of the medication.
How do you take them?
The body's ability to manufacture enzymes decreases as part of the aging process. Also, genetics, stomach viruses, and stress can all wear away at the body's store of digestive enzymes.
It is always best to take digestive enzymes, or any supplement, only after consultation with a doctor. It is possible a doctor may prescribe a prescription strength enzyme.
Prescription strength enzymes
Prescription strength enzymes are very different from over-the-counter supplements. It is essential that individuals who choose to take an over-the-counter supplement read the labels before purchasing them. It is also a good idea to talk to a doctor first.
Digestive enzymes for IBS, or general health purposes, can contain blends of different enzymes, such as amylase, lipase, lactase, bromelain, and more.
Precautions when choosing a supplement
Before buying or taking any supplements, make sure to check for any additional ingredients in each capsule, especially if food sensitivities are an issue. Unless a supplement says that it does not contain soy, dairy, or gluten, there is a chance that it does.
Note that the price and quality of digestive enzymes can vary significantly. It is best to review desired dosages and measurement units with a trained health professional to make sure that the product is worth the price and will deliver the desired level of enzymes.
People should always take these supplements with food. When taking digestive enzymes for IBS, it is best to do so when first sitting down to eat, or slightly before.
Are there any side effects?
Common side effects of using digestive enzymes may include bloating, nausea, gas, and constipation.
Potential side effects of using digestive enzymes for IBS symptoms can range from the rare and more serious to the more common and less serious.
The more common side effects include:
- loose stools or diarrhea
- stomach discomfort
- greasy stools
- a headache
- losing weight
More severe side effects include:
- Allergic reactions: These can include hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling around the face and require immediate emergency treatment.
- Severe stomach pain: Anyone experiencing serious stomach pains should consult a doctor as soon as possible.
The consensus is that there is not, as yet, any clear scientific evidence that taking digestive enzymes for IBS is effective.
However, after talking with a doctor, many people may benefit from their inclusion in part of a larger treatment plan for IBS.