Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about digestive enzymes. In the past few years in particular, enzymes have been a hot topic amongst influencers and health practitioners alike. So are digestive enzymes worth it? And what are the best digestive enzymes for IBS and managing the symptoms of IBS? Come along with this digestive health dietitian as I take a deep dive into what we know about enzymes for gut health.
Table of Contents
- What are Digestive Enzymes?
- Types of Digestive Enzymes on the Market
- The Problem with Digestive Enzymes
- Do Digestive Enzymes Help IBS?
- Best Digestive Enzymes for IBS
- Best Timing for Taking Digestive Enzymes
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Before we define what digestive enzymes are, we must first define what enzymes are. An enzyme is a type of protein that acts as a catalyst during chemical processes that take place in the body. This essentially means that enzymes help to speed things up – it could be digestion, nerve function, wound healing; any kind of chemical process!
Therefore, digestive enzymes specifically play a part in speeding up how we break down and digest foods. Enzymes are involved in almost every part of our digestive system including our salivary glands, stomach, pancreas, and small intestine.
There are many different types of enzymes and they each play a role in breaking down specific macronutrients. Here are some common enzymes that you may hear about:
- Lipase – breaks down fat molecules into smaller fatty acids
- Protease – breaks down protein into amino acids
- Amylase – breaks down complex carbohydrates
- Sucrase – breaks down sucrose, a type of sugar
- Lactase – breaks down lactose, another type of sugar (found in dairy)
- Maltase – breaks down maltose, a type of carbohydrate
And this is just the tip of the iceberg! There are lots of different enzymes that have specific jobs in the digestive process.
Types of Digestive Enzymes: What’s on the Market?
In general, the supplement industry is HUGE. While this means there are many options available, it also creates a lot of “noise” in the market. It is difficult to know what is evidence-based and worth your time and money.
With digestive enzymes in particular, we see them falling into 3 categories:
Singular digestive enzymes
These are products that only contain one specific enzyme, intended for one specific purpose. Examples include lactase (Lactaid, Lacteeze) for helping people break down lactose or alpha-galactosidase (Beano, Bean-Assist) to help with digesting gas-producing foods such as beans, or cruciferous vegetables.
Blends of digestive enzymes
These are over the counter products that contain more than one type of enzyme and are generally marketed with names like ‘super enzymes’, ‘multi-enzymes’ or ‘full spectrum enzymes’. Another example of an enzyme blend is a prescription enzyme option called pancrelipase (brand name Creon), which is a high-potency blend of lipase, protease, and amylase. This is prescribed for those who have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI), a condition in which the pancreas doesn’t make enough enzymes.
Enzymes that are added to other supplements
With ‘gut health’ becoming so trendy recently, many multivitamin supplements, greens powders, and probiotics/synbiotics are starting to add ‘proprietary enzyme blends’ (or similar terminology) into their products.
I won’t sugarcoat it – a lot of the products out there with digestive enzymes aren’t worth it according to the evidence. This is especially true for the numerous digestive enzyme blends and all-encompassing “gut boosting” multivitamins that we’re seeing all over the place now.
The Problem with Digestive Enzymes
The marketing around enzymes tends to suggest that people have digestive issues because of a lack of enzymes. In most cases, this is incorrect. With the exception of conditions like lactose intolerance or EPI, it’s actually uncommon to be deficient in digestive enzymes.
Additionally, many of the enzyme preparations on the market aren’t standardized or well-researched, particularly in the context of certain conditions. We don’t have much evidence to say “X enzyme blend works for Y condition”. Of course, there are exceptions to this too. We CAN confidently say that using lactase is helpful for those who have a lactose intolerance, as we do know that this condition is caused by a deficiency in the lactase enzyme.
Keep an eye out for sensationalist language when it comes to supplements like this as well. The supplement industry (especially gut health products) is notorious for creating a problem so that they can swoop in to fix it.
Here’s an example of that:
“You could be eating all the right things but not digesting them right” – Do you see the problem with this fear mongering language? It’s causing people to lose trust in the abilities of their bodies. Trust me, our bodies are well-oiled machines that rarely need “gut boosting” or “toxin removing” or in this case, enzymes.
Do digestive enzymes help with IBS?
With IBS in particular, it’s not a deficiency of enzymes that causes symptoms. Therefore, we can’t assume that supplementing with digestive enzymes will be a fix-all for IBS.
However, not all hope is lost when it comes to digestive enzymes in IBS. Many people with IBS struggle to digest high FODMAP foods. Some products on the market are designed to use specific and targeted enzymes to help to break down these non-digestible carbohydrates into more readily absorbed formats.
A quick overview of FODMAPs:
FODMAPs are specific types of non-digestible carbohydrates that are found in plant-based foods as well as some dairy. These carbohydrates go through the digestive system without being absorbed and eventually reach the large intestine. This is where they get fermented by the bacteria in our gut microbiome. In turn, this can cause some digestive problems like abdominal pain, bloating, and often diarrhea. So while IBS is not caused by a lack of enzymes, specific digestive enzymes may help to make certain FODMAP-containing foods less distressing for those who have IBS.
A great real-world example of this is well-fermented sourdough bread. Although the wheat flour in the bread contains fructans, a type of FODMAP, the fermentation process helps to change the fibers in this food to a more readily digested version.
Best Digestive Enzymes for IBS
One particular enzyme product called FODZYME targets other high FODMAP foods in a similar way to the sourdough bread. This product contains targeted FODMAP-transforming enzymes such as lactase, alpha-galactosidase, and fructan hydrolase to transform lactose, galacto-oligosaccharides, and fructans respectively. They’re currently working on a novel polyol-targeting enzyme to help transform another FODMAP group called polyols. Their mission with this novel enzyme is to change sorbitol and mannitol into sorbose and mannose, which are more readily absorbed in the gut.
With a product like FODZYME, the point is not to supplement enzymes because the body has a deficiency. Instead, it is meant to allow patients to make any meal low FODMAP without having to be restrictive. This product targets the food, not the function of the body itself.
Many IBS patients also find that using singular enzymes can be helpful, such as lactase pills or a product like Bean-Assist (alpha-galactosidase). However, the success of these products really depends on the individual’s tolerance to different FODMAPs. If someone with IBS isn’t lactose intolerant, then using a lactase pill won’t be helpful. If you don’t struggle with GOS foods, you won’t likely benefit from Bean-Assist. It can be helpful to first understand which FODMAP groups are most distressing to your IBS symptoms by following a low FODMAP diet if appropriate. Talk to a dietitian if this is something you’d like to learn more about.
As for the more general digestive enzyme blends or enzymes added to probiotics, greens powders, etc – don’t waste your time and money.
Additionally, a lot of multivitamins and ‘superfood’ powders that tout digestive enzyme benefits also contain high FODMAP ingredients such as inulin, mushrooms, or sugar alcohols.
When is the best time to take digestive enzymes?
Since digestive enzymes can play a role in transforming food components into more easily digested derivatives, it’s very important to actually use them with food. It’s best to take them immediately before eating or during the beginning of the meal. Some enzymes come in capsules to be taken with a meal. Your doctor, pharmacist, or dietitian may instruct you to take some at the beginning and some during the middle of your meal, if appropriate. Some enzymes, like FODZYME come in a powder format, which is sprinkled on food so the enzymes start going to work as you sprinkle and then chew the food. Taking your enzymes as prescribed or recommended is key to having them work effectively – too long before or after a meal means they can’t do their important job.
If a supplement is claiming to fix your entire life, it’s almost always too good to be true. If the marketing around a product is steeped in scary language and fear, that’s a red flag! And if you’re just not sure what to believe, consider asking a registered dietitian. We are highly trained to understand the science (or lack thereof) and debunk misinformation.
FAQ About Digestive Enzymes for IBS
Yes, in some cases taking specific types of digestive enzymes may help with IBS symptoms, particularly in people who are sensitive to high FODMAP foods. However, not all digestive enzyme supplements will provide relief from IBS symptoms. Learn more here or discuss the best options with a registered dietitian.
It’s best to take digestive enzymes immediately before eating or during the beginning of a meal. Taking your enzymes as prescribed or recommended is key to having them work effectively – too long before or after a meal means they can’t do their important job. Read more about digestive enzymes for IBS.
It’s not common to be deficient in digestive enzymes. There are a couple conditions where this is possible, such as lactose intolerance (this is caused by a lactase enzyme deficiency) or exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (this is caused by a pancreatic enzyme deficiency). IBS is not caused by a deficiency in digestive enzymes.
Categorized: Gut Health & IBS