What Exactly Are Digestive Enzymes—and Do You Need One?

Are digestive enzyme supplements the ticket to getting your stomach issues under control? Here's what the experts say.

When digestive issues like bloating, gas, nausea, constipation, or diarrhea are a regular event after eating, it can put a serious cramp in your quality of life (pun totally intended).And while it’s comforting to know you’re not alone (up to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health), when those pesky and sometimes downright painful symptoms strike, you’d like to experience some actual comfort too.

This could explain why more consumers are taking notice of digestive enzyme supplements, which are thought to help the body break down food compounds and increase nutrient absorption, relieving symptoms of indigestion in the process.A 2017 report published by Grand View Research, Inc. estimates that the global digestive enzyme supplements market will hit $1.6 billion by 2025—but with this surge in popularity comes a scroll of questions, including whether they really work and how safe they are.

We went to the experts to find out everything you need to know about digestive enzyme supplements. Here’s what they had to say.

What are digestive enzymes and how do these supplements work, exactly?

The body secretes a variety of enzymes to break down the foods that we eat—some are secreted starting in the mouth, and others further down in the digestive tract. "The most important enzyme categories are the proteases (which break down proteins), lipases (fats), and amylases (starches and sugars)," says Ken Berry, MD, Tennessee-based board-certified family physician and author of Lies My Doctor Told Me.

Normally functioning glands (in the mouth, stomach, small intestine, gallbladder, and pancreas) are pros at producing the enzymes we need to digest our food and absorb the subsequent nutrients properly—but when these glands are either non-functioning or have been damaged, digestive enzyme supplements are intended to help pick up the slack.

Who might—or might not—benefit from taking digestive enzyme supplements?

Diseases of the stomach and small intestine can reduce the number of enzymes produced by them, says Dr. Berry, so people with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, or low stomach acid might find digestive enzyme supplements helpful. Same goes for people who have chronic pancreatitis, which can cause a deficiency of pancreatic enzymes. Having your gallbladder removed can also make it so that there aren’t enough enzymes to break down fat properly, making supplementation a necessary measure to reduce digestive drama.

But if you don’t have a definite enzyme deficiency (you can find out for sure by having your poop tested), or your symptoms are more of a nuisance than severe, it might be easier on your wallet to simply remove any foods from your diet that are causing digestive distress in the first place. "For most people, removing sugars, grains, liquid dairy, and industrial seed oils from the diet can dramatically improve the digestive issues many might try to treat with a supplement," says Dr. Berry.

How many kinds of digestive enzyme supplements are there?

The over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplements on the market are modeled around the three primary categories of digestive enzymes that are created naturally within the body (protein-, fat- and carb-specific), says Nazir Khaja, MD, California-based gastroenterologist and clinical associate professor at UCLA School of Medicine.

Two of the more well-known examples are lactase (for digesting lactose found in dairy products), and alpha-galactosidase supplements (for sugars found in cruciferous veggies and legumes).There’s also a growing market for supplements that contain a combination of digestive enzymes and claim to alleviate multiple gut issues in one shot. “Whether they actually help or not is up for debate, because no meaningful studies have proven their merit,” notes Dr. Berry.

Can your body become dependent on digestive enzyme supplements to digest food?

“If your body still makes the digestive enzymes you need, then taking a supplement of them won’t help or hurt your health—it’ll just lighten your wallet,” says Dr. Berry.The one scenario where your body would become reliant on an enzyme supplement is if a legit deficiency is present, making the supplement necessary for proper digestive function.

Can digestive enzyme supplements interfere with other medications?

Digestive enzyme supplements may be labeled as containing natural ingredients (say, derived from plants) and regarded as safe, but they can still interfere with other medications you’re taking, such as ora diabetes medications and blood thinners.If you’re thinking about trying a digestive enzyme supplement and are on other meds, it’s best to check in with your doc first to discuss possible interactions, says Dr. Berry.

If you want to try digestive enzyme supplements, what’s the safest way to do so?

Reading the label is everything, says Dr. Khaja. Make sure the supplement you're considering contains the enzyme your doctor thinks might help with improving your digestion—proteases (to break down proteins), lipases (fats), amylases (starches and sugars)—and check the ingredients list to make sure it doesn’t contain anything you’re allergic to or any dubious ingredients such as kava or bitter orange, which have been linked to side effects.

Digestive enzyme supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, but there are private groups (such as the Natural Products Association and USP Quality Supplements) that offer up their own seals of approval for dietary supplements. To earn one of these seals, the products have to be made via good manufacturing procedures and contain what’s on the label—so if you spot one of these seals, this can be helpful in ensuring you’re buying a better quality product.

Anytime you're shopping for a supplement, it's a good idea to shop at big-chain retailers, which are more likely to take recalled supplements off shelves.

Are there side effects?

There can be. Popping a digestive enzyme supplement if you don't have a specific deficiency can trigger the very symptoms you’re trying to avoid, such as nausea, bloating, and diarrhea. Allergic reactions can also be an issue for some people, such as itching, rash, stomach pain, and difficulty swallowing. If this happens, stop taking the digestive enzyme supplements, stat, and seek medical attention, says Dr. Khaja.

But even if taking digestive enzyme supplements does improve your digestion sans side effects, it’s still a good idea to notify your doctor that you’re using them, especially if you’d like to make them a series regular.That way, you can find out about any issues you might run into down the line, says Dr. Khaja, and your doctor’s already in the loop should you need a consult.

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