Digestive Enzymes and IBS
If you are going to try any sort of supplement, always discuss with your doctor and nutrition professional first. This post is for general information purposes only, is not meant to diagnose or treat, and is in no way a replacement for consulting a medical professional.
What are digestive enzymes?
Enzymes are a specific type of protein and act as a chemical catalyst in the body. Digestive enzymes are the group that break down the food we eat into smaller molecules to eventually be absorbed and used by the body.
Most digestive enzymes are made by the pancreas and during digestion are secreted into the small intestine. But some are also made by the salvatory glands (so are present in our saliva), and by the cells lining the stomach and small intestine.
Each digestive enzyme has its own specific target, for example:
- Amylase targets carbohydrates, breaking down complex sugars into simple sugars
- Lipase targets fats, breaking them down into fatty acids and glycerol
- Pepsin targets proteins, breaking them down into peptides
These are just a few examples of the many digestive enzymes our body produces. One that you may be more familiar with is lactase. This is the enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose (milk sugar) into glucose and galactose. The lack of this enzyme in some people is what lies behind lactose intolerance! (Keep in mind this is not the same as with a true dairy allergy.)
Should I be supplementing with digestive enzymes for IBS?
Supplementation of digestive enzymes originally started namely for people with pancreatic insufficiency – these people were unable to produce enough of their own digestive enzymes in the pancreas.
There’s some, albeit limited, research that certain digestive enzymes could beneficial for people with IBS. The theory being that they can help with indigestion and cut down on the chance of IBS symptoms being triggered by poorly digested food.
However, regulation in the digestive enzyme industry is very poor, and many products on the market lack scientific evidence backing up their beneficial claims. Since enzymes are a type of protein, in many cases there is no proof that these enzymes even reach the small intestine intact – they may be digested themselves in the process!
If you are going to try a supplement, always discuss with your doctor and nutrition professional first. Make sure to choose one that has research showing its benefits specifically for IBS symptoms. Take them following the label’s instructions (generally before and/or during a meal).
Supplements can be pricey, so take the time to evaluate whether you are experiencing any benefit from it after a consistent trial period of a month. If you don’t notice the benefit, don’t waste your money!
Types of digestive enzymes for IBS
Lactase (commonly found as the brand Lactaid)
This is a digestive enzyme that aids in the breakdown of the milk sugar, lactose. Studies have shown it can reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance that many people with IBS struggle with.
Around 2/3 of people with IBS have been found to be sensitive to a FODMAP subcategory called GOS (galacto-oligosaccharides). GOS are commonly found in foods like lentils and legumes, cashews, and pistachios. The digestive enzyme alpha-galactosidase has been shown to reduce symptoms of IBS like bloating, abdominal distension, and gas.
Biointol is a combination of different digestive enzymes along with some soluble fibers. A study on IBS patients showed improvement on symptoms like bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain, with a slight increase in urgency of bowel movements. However, the study was a fairly small group and there was no placebo group. More research still needs to be done.
Pancreatic lipase (PEZ)
A small study on a group of people with diarrhea predominant IBS showed improvement in symptoms like cramping, stomach rumbling, bloating, urgency of bowel movements, pain, and loose stools. More research still needs to be done.
Digestive enzymes could be helpful for some people with IBS. Take care which ones you are taking and make sure to choose ones that have credible research and proven results on IBS symptoms. Some digestive enzymes can come from animal-based sources, so make sure to check the label if you require a vegan/vegetarian product.
Remember that some digestive enzymes, like lactase, are very specific, and so their effectiveness is going to rely on whether or not you’re consuming food that contains that substance. This is why knowing what your food triggers are is so important!
There is no magical pill that replaces doing the work – and this includes digestive enzymes!
Any supplementation should generally be a second line of support after working with a professional on establishing a healthy, balanced diet and making positive lifestyle changes to address your specific IBS symptom triggers. Always discuss diet and lifestyle changes, as well as supplementation, with your doctor prior to starting.
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