Find out all about digestive enzyme supplements including what they do, the benefits of taking them and how much you might need
Written by Helen Foster on March 19, 2019
Reviewed by Angela Dowden on March 21, 2019
Digestive enzymes are proteins released by the digestive system <link to: Digestion: what you need to know> when we eat. Their job is to speed up the breakdown of your meal so the nutrients can be more quickly absorbed from our food.1
What are digestive enzyme supplements and what do they do?
Digestive enzyme supplements contain one or all of the different digestive enzymes released naturally into your gut but in supplement form, such as tablets or capsules. These can include:2
- lipase – needed for fat digestion
- amylase – it breaks down carbohydrates
- proteases and peptidases – these both help digest proteins
- lactase – it digests lactose, or milk sugar
- alpha-galactosidase – the enzyme we need to digest a complex form of carbohydrate found in beans, for example
In a supplement, the digestive enzymes are usually extracted from plant, microbe or animal (mainly pork) sources.3 Plant sources of digestive enzymes include:
- papain – a protein-digesting enzyme from papaya4
- bromelain – a mixture of protease enzymes from pineapple, which break down protein5
Benefits of digestive enzymes
What do digestive enzyme supplements do in the body?
Digestive enzyme supplements are designed to top up your body’s natural digestive enzymes and support your gut health.6 Not everyone needs this extra help, but you might if you aren’t producing enough enzymes – this can slow down the digestive process, leading to uncomfortable digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating and indigestion.7
Causes of digestive enzyme deficiency may include:
- too little or too much exercise
- a poor diet – for example too little protein, too many calories or eating too many refined carbohydrates
- medical conditions, such as gall stones or diabetes9
In addition, digestive enzyme supplements may be helpful for a number of conditions, including:
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – while evidence for using digestive enzymes to ease IBS is mixed, a 2010 USA trial on people with IBS found an improvement in symptoms like cramping, bloating and loose stools when taking a combination of enzymes before meals.10
Lactose intolerance – people with this condition don’t make enough of the digestive enzyme lactase to break down lactose. A 2008 study reported that taking a lactase supplement may improve symptoms,11 but other studies have had mixed results.12
How much is safe to take?
Amounts vary depending on the individual supplement, so read the label carefully before use.13 If you aren’t sure which specific enzyme you need, try a multi-enzyme supplement – it provides all the enzymes in one dose.
Do not take digestive enzyme supplements if you are:14
- pregnant or breast-feeding – they have not been proven safe
- taking blood-thinning drugs – the enzyme bromelain also thins the blood
What are the side-effects of taking digestive enzyme supplements?
At first, digestive enzyme supplements can cause the very symptoms you’re hoping to tackle, which means you may notice an increase in the following:15
- abdominal cramps
- loose stools
Other side-effects can include:16
- neck pain
- blocked nose
Always speak to your GP or a registered nutritionist before taking digestive enzymes for the first time.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies.
1. Science Learning Hub. Digestive enzymes
2. As above
3. Elisabeth Phillips and Antony Haynes. Clinical Education. Digestive enzymes
4. Annette McDermott. Healthline. 6 Ways to Use Papain
5. Rachel Nall. Medical News Today. Does bromelain have any health benefits?
6. Ianiro G, et al. Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Disorders
7. Harvard Medical School. Gut reaction: A limited role for digestive enzyme supplements
8. Laugier R, et al. Changes in pancreatic exocrine secretion with age: pancreatic exocrine secretion does decrease in the elderly
9. As Source 3
10. Money ME, et al. Pilot study: A randomised double blind, placebo-controlled trial of pancrealipase for the treatment of postprandial irritable bowel syndrome-diarrhoea
11. Roxas M. The role of enzyme supplementation in digestive disorders
12. InformedHealth.org. Lactose intolerance: Overview
13. RxList. Digestive enzymes
14. As above
15. As Source 13
16. As Source 13