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?

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #495
image of digestive enzyme pills spilling out of bottle

Symptoms like gas and bloating can be caused by all kinds of different things, and enzyme supplements may or may not be the solution. Even if it is, you’d need to pick the right enzyme for the problem. If, for example, your symptoms are being caused by the complex carbohydrates in legumes or cruciferous vegetables, you’d want a supplement containing alpha-galactosidase. This is the enzyme found in Beano, and it can be very effective in reducing gas from these foods.

See also: Got Gas?

If, on the other hand, your symptoms are due to the lack of lactose-digesting enyzmes, then all the alpha-galactosidase in the world isn’t going to help. You’re going to need a supplement containing lactase. Or, you could simply avoid dairy products, which are the only foods that contain lactose. And if your symptoms are due to incomplete digestion or protein or fats, then you’d want to try a product containing protease or lipase. Because all of this can be hard to guess, most digestive enzyme products just throw the entire kitchen sink in and hope for the best.

The good news is that over-the-counter digestive enzymes appear to be pretty safe when used as directed. If you suspect that your digestive symptoms are due to a lack of enzymes, you could always try one of these supplements and see if it helps. If you decide to try one, look for one that is enterically coated, which increases the likelihood that the enzymes will actually survive their passage through your stomach and arrive intact in the small intestine.

The other good news is that you should know pretty much right away if a supplement is helping. If it doesn’t seem to reduce your symptoms, then there is no point in continuing to take it.

Digestive Enzymes for Arthritis Pain

Ironically, one of the most promising uses for digestive enzyme supplementation has nothing to do with digestion. A pair of double blind studies found that a supplement containing protein-digesting enzymes bromelain, trypsin, and rutin (sold in the US as Wobenzym), was as effective in reducing arthritis pain as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs use to treat arthritis pain.

The Bottom Line

Before you try a supplement, though, it might be worth trying another approach first. Simply slowing down and chewing your food more thoroughly can increase the activity of the enzymes produced in your body, reduce gas and bloating, improve digestion and increase nutrient absorption. But be careful what you wish for! Digestive enzymes are often marketed as a way to increase nutrient absorptionwhich sounds like a good thing. But we’re not talking about increasing your absorption of vitamin C or calcium. More complete digestion of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins will allow you to absorb more energy (or calories) from these foods!

See also: How does chewing affect nutrition


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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