Good digestion means absorbing nutrients from the foods you eat – and for that, digestive enzymes are key.
Digestive enzymes are proteins released into the digestive system that help speed up the breakdown of food into easily absorbed nutrients that our bodies can use.
Discover why digestive enzymes could be the key to good digestion below.
It's only by digesting our food properly that we can absorb all the nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy.
Symptoms of poor digestion include heartburn, indigestion, bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. You may also notice undigested food in your stools.1
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They’re proteins released into the digestive system, mainly by the pancreas and small intestine.
They have a very important job to do – breaking down the food we eat into nutrients that our body can absorb and put to good use.
There are many different enzymes involved in digestion but the three main types are:2
A 2016 study published in Current Drug Metabolism found that digestive enzymes may help manage digestive disorders, including lactose intolerance.3
It could also help people with discomfort in the digestive tract caused, for example, by irritable bowel syndrome.4,5,6
Stress also affects digestive enzymes, reducing their production; when we’re in fight-or-flight mode, our body gives digestion a low priority.7
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Digestive enzymes are available either as single or mixed enzymes. They can be:8
Check the label to see which enzymes are included and their source, particularly if you’re vegetarian or vegan.
Also check which food they break down inside the body – if you have lactose intolerance, for example, look for lactase.
Digestive enzyme supplements: benefits, dosage, side-effects
Digestive enzyme supplements are designed to top up your body’s natural digestive enzymes and support your gut health.9
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.10
Causes of digestive enzyme deficiency may include:11,12
In addition, digestive enzyme supplements may be helpful for a number of conditions, including:
While evidence for using digestive enzymes to ease IBS is mixed, a 2010 USA trial on people with IBS found the incidence of cramping, bloating and loose stools was lower when taking a combination of enzymes before meals.13
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 help symptoms, but other studies have had mixed results.14,15
Amounts vary depending on the individual supplement, so read the label carefully before use.16
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:17
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:18
Other side-effects can include:19
Always speak to your GP or a registered nutritionist before taking digestive enzymes for the first time.
Last updated: 10 September 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry
Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.
After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.