Some small studies suggest that digestive enzyme supplements may help alleviate IBS symptoms, such as diarrhea and gas. But, there’s not enough evidence to support this, and more research is needed.
If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you’ve probably already scoured the internet for supplements and remedies to help relieve your symptoms. Digestive enzyme supplements are one of many supposed remedies for alleviating tummy troubles. But do they work?
A digestive enzyme is a complex protein made by your body to help break down food into smaller molecules so they can be absorbed into your body. Most digestive enzymes are made by your pancreas, though a few are made by your mouth, stomach, and small intestine.
Examples of digestive enzymes include:
- Amylase: breaks apart complex sugars into smaller molecules like maltose
- Lipase: breaks down complex fats into smaller fatty acids and glycerol
- Pepsin: breaks down proteins in foods like meat, eggs, and dairy products into smaller peptides
- Lactase: breaks down the milk sugar called lactose
- Cholecystokinin: a hormone secreted in the small intestine that causes the gallbladder to contract and release bile, and the pancreas to release digestive enzymes
- Trypsin: breaks down protein, so it can be made into amino acids
Supplements are digestive enzymes in a pill or chewable tablet form. They may include one or a combination of multiple digestive enzymes. Some are sold in conjunction with probiotics. They can easily be bought online.
These supplements were originally made for people with pancreatic insufficiency, a condition in which the pancreas doesn’t produce enough enzymes to digest food.
The labels of digestive enzyme supplements often include broad claims. They might claim to:
- support healthy digestion
- optimize the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, and protein
- promote optimal nutrient absorption
- reduce gas, bloating, indigestion, and constipation following meals
- help your body process difficult-to-digest foods
IBS is typically diagnosed based on symptoms and by ruling out other conditions. At this time, the cause of IBS isn’t known, so treatment is aimed at alleviating symptoms like:
Because digestive enzymes assist with the breakdown of food, supplements might help alleviate common IBS symptoms. But more research is needed to confirm this.
If one thing is clear from the available research on digestive enzymes for IBS, it’s that more research is needed.
Research suggests that alpha-galactosidase supplementation may reduce symptoms of IBS. Alpha-galactosidase breaks down galactooligosaccharide (GOS), which is found in foods like beans and cashews.
Many people living with IBS report lactose intolerance, but this is not the same IBS.
Another study from 2017 found that a combination of beta-glucan, inositol, and digestive enzymes reduced symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence in patients with IBD or IBS.
As with all over-the-counter dietary supplements, digestive enzyme supplements aren’t controlled by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While manufacturers are required to ensure their product is at least safe, there are no controls in place for consistency of dosing or any mandatory rigorous safety testing.
Some enzymes may cause side effects. These may include:
- abdominal cramps
The signs, symptoms, severity, and treatment of IBS differ from person to person. Right now, there isn’t enough evidence to support the use of digestive enzyme supplements in treating IBS.
Small studies have shown some promise, but more research is needed. Talk with your doctor or dietitian about which supplements may be best for you and your particular case of IBS.