What Are Digestive Enzymes?

Digestive enzyme supplements may help improve stomach issues, depending on the cause.

Digestive enzymes are proteins that occur naturally in the body, but they can also come in the form of supplements. The enzymes help the body break down food compounds and increase nutrient absorption.

Normally functioning glands throughout the digestive system are pros at producing enzymes. However, when these glands aren't functioning or are damaged, digestive enzyme supplements are intended to help pick up the slack. Here's what you need to know about these supplements.

Dietary supplements are minimally regulated by the FDA and may or may not be suitable for you. The effects of supplements vary from person to person and depend on many variables, including type, dosage, frequency of use, and interactions with current medications. Please speak with your healthcare provider or pharmacist before starting any supplements.

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Benefits of Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes, in supplement form, are useful in helping streamline the digestive system.

Break Down Macronutrients

The primary benefit of digestive enzymes is assisting the digestive process by breaking down macronutrients including fats, proteins, and carbs. In doing so, they help the body digest and absorb nutrients.

Reduce GI Symptoms

Digestive enzymes can also be helpful for gastrointestinal (GI) health conditions like chronic pancreatitis—which might lead to a deficiency of pancreatic enzymes—or lactose intolerance. They work to reduce symptoms, such as abdominal pain, that come with GI health conditions.

When Dietary Enzymes May Not Be Helpful

Digestive enzyme supplements are not for everyone. They may not be beneficial if you don't have a definite enzyme deficiency—you can find out for sure by having your poop tested—or if your symptoms are more of a nuisance than severe.

How To Use Digestive Enzymes

There are two major types of digestive enzyme supplements: over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription. The type will determine when and how you use them.

OTC Supplements

Over-the-counter (OTC) digestive enzymes can come in various forms, such as powders, capsules, or tablets. Depending on which form you use, you may need to take it with food or after a meal. Also, powder forms are often mixed in water or a smoothie for you to consume.

The OTC supplements are usually based on the main digestive enzymes created naturally in the body. They include:

  • Amylases, to break down starches and sugars
  • Lipases, to digest fats
  • Proteases, to break down protein

Another well-known enzyme example is lactase, which helps digest lactose found in dairy products.

Prescription Supplements

Prescription digestive enzymes are available as tablets or capsules. They are usually part of pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, or PERT. PERT is a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulated treatment. PERT is typically given to individuals with cystic fibrosis and those with frequent pancreatitis.


OTC digestive enzyme dosages vary depending on the supplement form and ingredients. Talking with a healthcare provider can provide you with guidance on how much to use.

Individuals with PERT as part of their treatment plan may be prescribed 30,000 to 40,000 IU to take with meals and 15,000 to 20,000 IU to take with snacks. They may be instructed to take half of the total dose with the first portion of food they eat, then half during or after they finish eating.

Are Digestive Enzymes Safe?

Digestive enzyme supplements may be labeled as containing natural ingredients—say, derived from plants—and are generally considered safe. However, they may have drug interactions, and you have to know where to find quality digestive enzyme products.

Potential Drug Interactions

Check with a healthcare provider first to discuss possible interactions if you are using other medications but are interested in digestive enzyme supplements. For example, bromelain—which is used for its anti-inflammatory properties—can have interactions with amoxicillin, anticoagulant, and antiplatelet drugs.

What To Look For

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. Make sure the supplement you're considering contains the enzyme a healthcare provider thinks might help with improving your digestion.

Check the ingredients list to ensure it doesn't contain anything you're allergic to. Also, make sure it doesn't have potentially problematic ingredients such as kava or bitter orange, which have been linked to side effects.

The FDA doesn't regulate dietary supplements. Still, private groups—such as the Natural Products Association and USP Quality Supplements—offer up their own seals of approval for dietary supplements.

Products must be made via good manufacturing procedures and contain what's on the label to earn one of these seals. Spotting these seals can help ensure that you buy a better-quality product.

Can You Take Too Much of Digestive Enzyme Supplements?

You could take too much of a digestive enzyme supplement if you use more than the label instructs or what you've been prescribed. Doing so may result in side effects, which are discussed below.

Side Effects of Digestive Enzymes

For dietary supplements in general, you can have side effects if you have them in high doses or take many at the same time. That means it's also possible to have side effects if you take digestive enzyme supplements.

Allergic reactions can also be an issue for some people, such as itching, rash, stomach pain, and difficulty swallowing. Stop taking digestive enzyme supplements if you have any reactions, and seek medical attention.

You may take digestive enzyme supplements that improve your digestion sans side effects. However, it's still a good idea to notify a healthcare provider that you're using them, especially if you'd like to take them regular. Plus, you would already have a provider in the loop should you need consultation.

Foods To Eat for Digestive Support

It might be easier to simply remove any foods from your diet causing any digestive distress. Also, eating certain foods, like ones with fiber, may be your best bet to assist with digestion. Aim to eat more of the following foods if you don’t have allergies, intolerances, or sensitivities to them:

  • Fruits including berries, pears, or oranges
  • Legumes, such as black beans or chickpeas
  • Nuts, such as almonds or pecans
  • Vegetables like green peas and collard greens
  • Whole grains like oatmeal or quinoa

A Quick Review

Digestive troubles can be frustrating. Since most digestive enzymes are available over the counter, they may be an attractive option depending on your gastrointestinal issues.

Consider any dietary causes of your digestive troubles before taking a supplement if you do not have a medical condition that makes digestive enzymes necessary. You may want to reach out to a healthcare provider, who can advise on the next steps or other solutions you can try.

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15 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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