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.
Why do we need a healthy digestive system?
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
Handpicked content: 6 easy ways to beat bloating
What are digestive enzymes?
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
- Amylase – this breaks down carbohydrate into sugars
- Protease – this digests proteins into amino acids
- Lipase – this converts fats (lipids) into fatty acids and glycerol
How can a digestive enzyme help?
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
Handpicked content: What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and how can you treat it?
What to look for in a digestive enzyme
Digestive enzymes are available either as single or mixed enzymes. They can be:8
- bromelain from pineapples or papain from papayas
- extracted from plants like fungi and yeast
- pancreatic enzymes taken from animals
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
Causes of digestive enzyme deficiency may include:11,12
- 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 diabetes
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 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
Dosage: How much is safe to take?
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
- 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:18
- abdominal cramps
- loose stools
Other side-effects can include:19
- neck pain
- blocked nose
Always speak to your GP or a registered nutritionist before taking digestive enzymes for the first time.
Last updated: 10 September 2021