Digestive Enzymes: Are They Worth Trying?

woman with belly pain

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Eating is a joyful experience. One that helps you connect with friends and family, while consuming essential nutrients for health and well-being. Unless, of course, eating causes belly pain, gas, or bloating.

If you feel uncomfortable after finishing a meal, you may wonder if digestive enzymes can help. These nutritional supplements contain various types of enzymes that may help breakdown food, improving digestion and absorption. But are they worth it?

There’s evidence that some over-the-counter (OTC) digestive enzymes can help. But not everyone needs to take these supplements. Read on to learn more about digestive enzymes and whether you need to supplement or not. 

What Are Digestive Enzymes?

Digestive enzymes are substances made by your body that help break up the food you eat into absorbable nutrients. Your stomach, small intestine, and pancreas make all the digestive enzymes needed to properly break down the food you eat.

Types of Enzymes

There are three main types of digestive enzymes:

  • Amylases: These enzymes break down carbohydrates. Some examples include lactase (breaks down lactose or milk sugar) and sucrase (breaks down sucrose or granulated sugar).
  • Proteases: These enzymes break down proteins. Pepsin is a type of protease enzyme made in the stomach.
  • Lipases: Enzymes that break down fats. 

The digestive system is not perfect and there are conditions that may affect production of these enzymes. If you’re lactose intolerant, your digestive system doesn’t make enough (or any) lactase, making it hard for you to digest foods like cow's milk that contain this carbohydrate.

When you can’t properly digest the food you eat, you may have abdominal pain, bloating, or diarrhea. Poor digestion and absorption may also affect your nutritional health.

If you have belly pain, bloating, or heartburn after eating and worry about digestive health, schedule a consultation with a healthcare provider for an evaluation. Your symptoms may be signs of an underlying gastrointestinal condition that requires specific medical attention that may or may not benefit from digestive enzymes. 

What Does the Research Say?

Research indicates the digestive enzymes benefit specific health conditions. However, there’s little evidence to support the use of nutritional digestive enzyme supplements for general wellness.

If you’re in good overall health, taking a digestive enzyme supplement will not make you healthier. Your body already makes all the enzymes it needs to properly break down the food you eat.

However, research says that certain health conditions benefit from digestive enzymes. Here is what you need to know.

Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance is very common, impacting up to 36% of people in the United States, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Omitting lactose-containing foods is one of the treatment options for lactose intolerance; but lactase supplements are also recommended.

According to a 2020 crossover placebo-controlled clinical study published in JGH Open, taking lactase supplements 5 minutes before eating lactose-containing foods significantly reduces bloating, abdominal pain, and gas in people with lactose intolerance.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that causes abdominal pain, gas, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. Though IBS triggers vary, if you have IBS you may experience symptoms after eating certain types of foods like broccoli, cabbage, or beans. These foods contain carbohydrates that are hard to digest—galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS).

Taking a digestive enzyme that contains alpha-galactosidase may help ease these symptoms if you have GOS sensitivity, according to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. However, the research is mixed.

A more recent study published in 2021 in Neurogastroenterology & Motility found no differences in IBS symptoms in people taking the digestive enzyme versus those taking a placebo. Though no single treatment works for all people with IBS, the American College of Gastroenterology recommends avoiding foods that trigger symptoms.

Functional Dyspepsia

Functional dyspepsia is a gastrointestinal disorder that causes ongoing symptoms like bloating, abdominal pain, and feeling full soon after eating that has no known cause. Currently, there’s no real effective treatment that helps those suffering from functional dyspepsia.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food evaluated the effectiveness of a multi-enzyme complex (MEC) for symptom relief in a group of people with functional dyspepsia. The digestive enzyme supplement contained a mix of enzymes including amylase, protease, cellulase, lactase, and lipase.

Researchers found a significant improvement in symptoms in the people taking the digestive enzymes versus those taking the placebo. The researchers suggest that digestive enzymes may serve as a complementary treatment for functional dyspepsia.

People Who Eat a High-Fiber Diet

Eating a high-fiber diet is good for your bowel and overall health. However, adding more fiber to your meals may have unpleasant side effects like gas, bloating, and abdominal pain.

When adding fiber to your diet—especially if you are not accustomed to eating a high-fiber diet—increasing your fluid intake is essential and can help to mitigate uncomfortable symptoms. Over time, your body will adjust and these symptoms usually subside.

Taking digestive enzymes that contain alpha-galactosidase may help. This enzyme helps break down those hard-to-digest carbohydrates before they reach your colon, potentially preventing or limiting the bloating and pain.

Potential Dangers

Current research indicates that OTC digestive enzymes are safe and well-tolerated. A 2018 study from the Journal of Medicinal Medicine investigated safety of the multi-enzyme complex supplement. Results from this study found no adverse events in the group taking the supplement.

A 2013 study published in BMC Gastroenterology looked at tolerance and safety of supplementing with alpha-galactosidase in children experiencing gas-related symptoms. The authors of this study note that the supplement was well-tolerated and safe, but concluded more research is needed. 

You should always take caution when adding any new dietary supplement to your daily routine. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate dietary supplements and it is up to the manufacturer of the supplement to show that their product is safe.

Additionally, these supplements may contain ingredients that negatively affect your body. For instance, certain supplements can interfere with medications. And, in large quantities some supplements, such as fat-soluble vitamins, can lead to toxicity. You should always consult with a healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement to discuss need and safety. 

Digestive Enzymes vs. Food 

Digestive enzymes may allow you to eat foods that contain nutrients your body needs for good health, like cow’s milk for calcium and vitamin D if you have lactose intolerance. However, digestive enzymes can’t replace the nutrition you get from eating whole food.

Additionally, there’s no evidence that taking digestive enzymes enhances your nutritional health. You can get natural enzymes from certain foods, like pineapple and papaya. However, it’s not clear if adding these enzyme-rich foods to your diet improves digestion.

Eating a balanced diet filled with an array of foods from all the food groups is the best way to make sure your body gets everything it needs. 

A Word From Verywell

Digestive enzymes may provide some benefits to people who have food intolerances or sensitivities. However, you don’t need to take digestive enzymes to enhance digestion or boost health if you're in good overall health.

Your digestive system produces all the enzymes your body needs to adequately breakdown and absorb nutrients. If you have concerns about digestion or have discomfort after eating, consult with a healthcare provider. You may have a medical condition that requires specific medical treatments. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What happens if you take digestive enzymes and you don’t need them?

    Digestive enzymes are safe and well-tolerated by most people according to recent studies. Though taking digestive enzymes when you don’t need them may not harm your health, it can put a dent in your wellness budget. Instead of buying supplements you don’t need, consider using what you save to buy yourself a wellness gift.

  • How can I increase my digestive enzymes naturally?

    Eating a balanced diet filled with nutrient-rich foods can help increase your digestive enzymes naturally. When adding fiber to your diet, health professionals recommend going slow, giving your digestive system time to adjust—boosting production of the enzymes that help break down these hard-to-digest carbohydrates. You should also increase fluid at the same time to help moves things through the digestive tract.

    However, if you have a food intolerance or sensitivity, eating foods may not improve enzyme activity. Talk to a registered dietitian about your diet and what you can eat to benefit health and digestion.

  • Are digestive enzymes the same as probiotics?

    Digestive enzymes aren’t the same as probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms that help balance the bacteria in your gut. These microorganisms break down fiber in the colon, make vitamins, and support overall health. Digestive enzymes work in the stomach and small intestine, breaking down the food you eat into absorbable nutrients.

  • Is it OK to take digestive enzymes and probiotics at the same time?

    You should take your digestive enzymes and probiotics as recommended by your primary care provider or as directed on the supplement label. Digestive enzymes work best when taken right before you eat. For lactase and alpha-galactosidase enzymes, you need to take the supplements right before you eat the foods they help digest.

    Probiotics are naturally found in foods like yogurt and kimchi (fermented cabbage). If these foods cause discomfort, then taking digestive enzymes before eating may ease your symptoms.

13 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. New Zealand Nutrition Foundation. Digestive enzymes.

  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Definition and facts for lactose intolerance.

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  5. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Definition and facts for irritable bowel syndrome.

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  7. Böhn L, Törnblom H, Van Oudenhove L, Simrén M, Störsrud S. A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled crossover pilot study: Acute effects of the enzyme α-galactosidase on gastrointestinal symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome patients. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2021;33(7):e14094. doi:10.1111/nmo.14094

  8. American College of Gastroenterology. Irritable bowel syndrome.

  9. Majeed M, Majeed S, Nagabhushanam K, Arumugam S, Pande A, Paschapur M, Ali F. Evaluation of the safety and efficacy of a multienzyme complex in patients with functional dyspepsia: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. J Med Food. 2018 Nov;21(11):1120-1128. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2017.4172.

  10. National Library of Medicine. High-fiber foods.

  11. Di Nardo, G., Oliva, S., Ferrari, F. et al. Efficacy and tolerability of α-galactosidase in treating gas-related symptoms in children: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial. BMC Gastroenterol 13, 142. 2013. doi:10.1186/1471-230X-13-142

  12. Food and Drug Administration FDA 101: Dietary supplements.

  13. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Probiotics: What you need to know.