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Do digestive enzyme supplements really work?

If you struggle with digestive issues like GERD, IBS, or food intolerances, then you have probably heard about digestive enzymes. I’m going to draw from my own experience with all of the above issues to tell you whether digestive enzyme supplementation actually works.

Lucy holding digestive enzyme supplements up to the camera

If you suffer from any digestive issues like IBS, histamine intolerance, intolerances to certain food groups (like legumes) or you are struggling with regular bloating and flatulence, then there is a high chance that your body doesn’t produce enough digestive enzymes to help break down your food. This is where digestive enzyme supplements come into play!

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I personally suffer from a whole host of digestive issues and so have taken all of the possible supplements out there to aid my gut. Included in this are digestive enzyme supplements.

The reason is that I have many of the symptoms of someone who doesn’t have enough digestive enzymes being produced by their own body, i.e. my body doesn’t digest food well.

This includes GERD, which means I get a lot of stomach acid (acid reflux) coming up after eating which leads me to cough a lot. On top of this, I suffer from IBS which is only made worse by the fact that my food isn’t digesting properly. The process goes something like this:

{Stress + food intolerances = IBS} + digestive enzyme issues = bloating, gassiness, diarrhoea & GERD = more IBS = more stress

And to top it all off I struggle to absorb nutrients well enough, meaning my vegan multivitamins and vegan omega-3 supplements were being pretty much wasted.

The only things that help with my digestive issues are managing my stress, taking probiotic supplements, eating probiotic-rich foods and taking digestive enzyme supplements before eating.

What are digestive enzymes?

Digestive enzymes are proteins produced by your body to facilitate the breakdown of food into smaller, absorbable molecules. Primarily synthesised by the pancreas, with some contribution from the mouth, stomach, and small intestine, these enzymes play a vital role in the digestion process, aiding efficient nutrient absorption.

Here are some examples of these digestive enzymes and their role in the digestion process:

  • Amylase: Produced in the mouth and pancreas, amylase breaks down complex carbohydrates (starches) into simpler sugars like glucose, which can be readily absorbed by the body.
  • Lipase: Synthesized in the pancreas, lipase helps in the digestion of dietary fats (lipids) by breaking them down into fatty acids and glycerol, which are easier for the body to absorb.
  • Protease: Also originating from the pancreas, protease enzymes aid in the digestion of proteins. They break down proteins into smaller peptides and amino acids, which are crucial for various bodily functions.
  • Trypsin and Chymotrypsin: These pancreatic enzymes further assist in breaking down proteins into smaller peptide fragments, enabling optimal absorption and utilisation of amino acids.
  • Peptidase: Produced in the small intestine, peptidases work on peptides generated from protein digestion, breaking them down into individual amino acids for absorption into the bloodstream.

Some diseases and digestive issues can negatively impact the production of these digestive enzymes in the body. So whilst we shouldn’t need to supplement these, some people may need to!

How do I know if I need a digestive enzyme supplement?

If you suffer from issues like age-related enzyme decline, pancreatitis, or cystic fibrosis then you have probably been told to supplement digestive enzymes by a health professional. But for some, it may be less obvious that you need to take a supplement. In particular, if you struggle from bloating, flatulence and/or heartburn you may not realise it is at all related. But these are all symptoms of digestive enzyme deficiency (albeit also symptoms of other gut-related disorders).

Whilst I would recommend talking to your GP about getting diagnosed properly for any gut-related illnesses, I do also understand that this process isn’t always straightforward (I’ve been there!). So it can be good to try out supplementation in the meantime.

It is worth also noting that whilst you may be displaying some of these symptoms that they may not be related to your body’s digestive enzyme production. If this is the case, then you won’t need a digestive enzyme supplement. Although, it is tricky to know what is causing what in your gut, especially since there is very little research and information out there about our guts at this time. So, it is worth trying supplements out for a few months before sacking them off.

If you experience any negative side effects then make sure to stop taking them. These can include bloating, constipation, dizziness, headaches, nausea and unexplained weight loss.

Why not also read: Do vegans have good gut health?

The scientific research

Here are some scientific studies that help to prove the efficacy of these supplements in certain people:

  • One study of 31 patients who suffered with IBS found that they experienced a reduction in IBS symptoms when taking a digestive enzyme supplement (see source)
  • This study worked with 43 patients suffering with IBS and IBD and found that digestive enzyme supplementation helped reduce bloating and flatulance after 4 weeks of treatment (see source)

How do digestive enzyme supplements work?

Digestive enzyme supplements are designed to support the body’s natural digestion process by providing additional enzymes that they may be lacking. These supplements typically contain enzymes such as amylase, lipase, and protease, among others, which aid in breaking down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, respectively. When taken with meals, these enzymes can help enhance the breakdown of food into smaller, more absorbable molecules.

This in turn then means that the food and its respective nutrients are being absorbed properly by the body. Which then ensures that your body is less likely to bloat or produce excess gas or stomach acid.

My experience with taking digestive enzymes

I am now going to take you through my own personal experience with taking digestive enzyme supplements. I suffer from IBS, Gerd and I have an intolerance to gluten, so when reading this do keep this in mind.

I want to explain my experiences in relation to trigger foods that I ate whilst trying out these digestive enzyme supplements, to help give you an idea of how they truly helped me.

1. A reduction in GERD symptoms

Normally after eating most foods, I will experience GERD. This usually includes lots of coughing, a disgusting acid taste in my mouth, chest pains, and a tight and sore throat. It stops me from eating out in public places since the cough can become pretty horrific, which bundled together with bloating and gas from my IBS makes for a lot of fun!

My GERD is a lot worse when I eat fatty foods, like coconut milk and oils, as well as gluten-based foods like bread.

So, when I started taking digestive enzymes I decided to test it out by eating foods I would normally restrict. This included some toast in the morning which was topped with fatty peanut butter. It is no exaggeration when I say that I experienced no negative effects from eating this when normally it would destroy my insides.

This continued improving over time as I would take more digestive enzymes. Although, it was definitely a lot more effective when I would take them directly before eating.

2. A reduction in bloating and gas

Not long after eating a meal, I would start to bloat and I would get really gassy. When I began taking digestive enzyme supplements I would notice a change in my stomach’s reaction to food. At first, the bloats went down significantly and after a few weeks of consistent supplementation, they became pretty rare. Along with it, my gassiness reduced.

I can only imagine it is because the enzymes were working to break down the food that was being digested which meant my gut was having a much easier time. Almost like they were giving it a helping hand, which thanks to my IBS is very much needed.

The science suggests that because food is being digested sooner in the digestive process (in your higher gut) when it does reach your lower gut there are much fewer foods that the bad bacteria can feed on. Find out more from Juvia.

3. A reduction in bowel issues

All of this has then had a huge knock-on effect on my bowel movements. Normally the process would start with a bad GERD reaction to food, which would lead to painful bloating and gas, and eventually, this would cause horrific bowel issues. TMI warning: I would get diarrhoea.

By taking these supplements long-term I have seen a great improvement in this area. By matching this with a healthy diet and a probiotic supplement, my gut is having a much happier time!

So, do digestive enzyme supplements work?

It is worth reminding you at this point that I am the prime candidate for these supplements. So, yes they worked an absolute dream for me! Whenever I took the supplements with food I found my body was able to tolerate it much more effectively, which suggests the food is being broken down properly. I tested this out with all my trigger foods, including fatty meals and carb-heavy foods like bread and pasta.

On top of the short-term relief I found from bloating, flatulence, and heartburn, I also benefited from long-term relief from my ongoing IBS symptoms and GERD. On top of this, after having taken digestive enzyme supplements long-term I have felt a lot healthier in general, probably because my body is now able to absorb nutrients effectively from my food!

See also: Do probiotics work?

My favourite digestive enzyme products

Discover all of my favourite digestive enzyme supplements here. Here are a few top picks I recommend trying out if you are interested in supplementing with digestive enzymes:

Lucy the founder of Edible Ethics vegan food blog eating vegan noodles in a plant based restaurant

Lucy Johnson

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