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Do You Need to Take Digestive Enzymes?

Over-the-counter digestive enzymes supplements have grown increasingly popular and are marketed to help with digestive symptoms like indigestion, bloating, and gas. But can these supplements really help you digest your food better or relieve these symptoms?

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
Episode #495
image of digestive enzyme pills spilling out of bottle

Melissa writes: “I've heard that as you age the amount of digestive enzymes your body produces decreases making it more difficult to digest your food. So you end up with symptoms like excessive belching, bloating, gas. Some people recommend taking digestive enzyme supplements with each meal. Is this information correct? How and when should you use digestive enzyme supplements if at all?”

Over-the-counter digestive enzymes supplements have grown increasingly popular and are marketed to help with digestive symptoms like indigestion, bloating, and gas. But can these supplements really help you digest your food better or relieve these symptoms?

What Are Digestive Enzymes?

First, a little background: Enzymes are proteins that enable chemical reactions, and most of the enzymes in our body are ones that we build ourselves. Our DNA contains the instructions for building the many thousands of enzymes that our bodies require to function. Most of these enzymes are involved in cellular metabolism. The rest help us digest our food by breaking down proteins, fats, and carbohydrates into smaller pieces so that they can be absorbed.

Digestive enzymes are found in various places throughout your digestive tract: the saliva, stomach, and small intestine. But most of our digestive enzymes are produced by the pancreas and excreted into the small intestine, which is where most digestion and absorption of food occurs.

If your pancreas is not producing enough digestive enzymes, you may not digest your food as thoroughly. A mild enzyme insufficiency might cause symptoms like gas or bloating. A severe enzyme deficiency can lead to weight loss and malnutrition. In cases where there is medically diagnosed pancreatic insufficiency, prescription digestive enzyme preparation can be absolutely essential.

But what about everyone else?

Does Enzyme Production Decrease with Age?

The idea that digestive enzyme production always decreases with age is just speculation. In fact, production of certain digestive enzymes actually increases with age. So you don’t  need to start taking digestive enzymes just because you are a certain age.

If you have symptoms like indigestion, gas, or bloating, it’s possible that digestive enzymes might help. One study that is frequently cited by people who sell OTC digestive products found that taking a digestive enzyme supplement with a heavy meal notably reduced gas and bloating. However, the product tested in this study is a pharmaceutical-grade product that is not available without a prescription. It’s hard to say whether an OTC supplement would produce the same effect.

How Effective Are Over-the-Counter Enzyme Supplements?

For one thing, OTC digestive supplements is a large (and largely unregulated) category of products containing all kinds of different things, including various types of enzymes but also herbs and other nutrietns that are thought to aid digestion. Because they are classified as dietary supplements and not drugs, the manufacturers are not required to prove that these products work or even to test them. As long as they don’t claim to “cure, treat, or prevent” a disease, it’s pretty much the Wild West.

Some of these supplements, for example, claim to break down gluten, allowing people with gluten intolerance to eat wheat without problems. Independent testing on such supplements finds that they are NOT effective in breaking down wheat proteins, so this is certainly not a safe approach for those with celiac disease. Nonetheless, people without celiac disease who believe themselves to be gluten intolerant often report that these supplements help them—but it’s a little hard to explain why.

See also: Is Non Celiac Gluten Senstivity for Real?

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