Digestive enzymes seem to be the wellness industry’s darling du jour. You don’t even have to spend 10 minutes on social media before you encounter someone selling digestive enzymes and making claims around them that seem too good to be true: things like better skin, better hair, better digestion, increased nutrient absorption, reduced bloating, resolution of menopause symptoms…and the list goes on.
But what are digestive enzymes? Do we really need to take them, or are they just another scam to separate us from our money by making us believe that our bodies aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do?
It’s funny how the wellness industry works – as in, on the backs of the ‘worried well.’ The industry makes us believe that we have some sort of health issue, and then sells us a magical ‘cure.’
Many influencers and companies selling digestive enzyme supplements tell people that they may as well take them routinely, since they are generally safe. But just because there’s no harm, doesn’t mean that there’s any benefit either.
Digestive enzymes are expensive (especially the brands that influencers shill), and why would you put something you don’t need into your body, ‘just in case’? Ridiculous.
The bottom line? Most people do not need to take digestive enzyme supplements. That being said, let’s get into what they are and what they do.
What are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are produced by the body in order to help break down food in a process called chemical digestion. This is different from mechanical digestion, which includes chewing and the breaking down of food into smaller pieces by the stomach.
Digesting food both chemically and mechanically ensures the efficient absorption of nutrition by our bodies.
There are many digestive enzymes, but you may be most familiar with amylase, lipase, and protease. These are all produced by the pancreas.
Salivary and pancreatic amylase, which are present in the saliva and small intestine, break down starches as we chew and digest them. Protease breaks down protein by cleaving it into separate amino acids, and lipase helps us break down fat.
Here are some other digestive enzymes produced by the body to facilitate digestion:
Pepsin is produced by the stomach and breaks down proteins
Chymotrypsin is produced by the pancreas and breaks down amino acid chains in the small intestine
Maltase is produced in the small intestine and breaks down sugar in the small intestine
Lactase, which breaks down lactose in the large intestine
Nuclease and nucleosidases are made in the pancreas and break up DNA and RNA strands in the stomach.
The vast majority of healthy people produce adequate amounts of endogenous digestive enzymes, and have no need for supplementation. Some people do need to take digestive enzymes, as a matter of life or death.
Any disease which impairs the pancreas, has the potential to affect the production of digestive enzymes.
Cystic fibrosis and pancreatitis are two of the most common conditions which require digestive enzyme supplementation. Trust me when I say that if you have either of those things, you sure as heck are going to know about it. Nobody is walking around living their life pain-free and normally with pancreatitis, and cystic fibrosis is generally diagnosed when a person is very very young.
That being said, there are two more common digestive enzyme supplements that are more routinely used (and not often in digestive enzyme supplements sold by wellness gurus).
Lactase for lactase deficiency, which results in lactose intolerance.
Alpha-galactosidase, which nobody’s body makes, but is the main ingredient in the product Beano. This enzyme can potentially help break down fermentable carbohydrates in foods like beans and vegetables.
According to Monash, both of these supplements may help with IBS in certain cases.
What is exocrine pancreatic insufficiency?
When the pancreas does not produce enough digestive enzymes, a person ends up with a condition called exocrine pancreatic insufficiency or EPI.
EPI is a significant risk for people with chronic pancreatitis and cystic fibrosis, but is also found in some people with diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease (from both the inflammatory disease or the treatment), pancreatitis, celiac disease (but typically resolves when the celiac is controlled with diet), bariatric surgery, and HIV/AIDS.
Symptoms of EPI include fatty stools, bloating, gas, diarrhea. EPI mainly affects the production of lipase, and therefore, the ability to break down fats.
EPI can also cause malnutrition through repeated malabsorption of nutrients.
In the case of an enzyme insufficiency such as EPI, a doctor will prescribe pancreatic enzymes. They won’t just direct you to the BeachBody site to buy their ‘proprietary formula’ enzymes.
EPI is diagnosed with these three tests:
1. Fecal elastase
2. Serum trypsinogen
3. Secretin pancreatic function test
Interestingly, if you actually have exocrine pancreatic insufficiency, you will likely need a high calorie, high fat diet along with enzyme replacements. I wonder how many influencers who are selling pancreatic enzymes would like to go on a high fat, high calorie diet for their ‘deficiency’?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
What are the ingredients in digestive enzyme supplements?
Most digestive enzyme supplements contain some combination of amylase, protease, and lipase, along with enzymes from fruit like papaya (papain) and pineapple (bromelain). Both are proteolytic enzymes, meaning they help to digest proteins.
As a dietitian who has overseen the prescribing of pancreatic enzymes for CF patients, I can tell you that those are in far higher doses, and more personalized, than anything you can buy online.
Arrae is a digestive enzyme brand that I see a lot of online (and that I’ve called out for insinuating that women should have flat stomachs at all times…this is totally wrong and harmful).
Unfortunately, although Arrae says its product is ‘clinically tested,’ they don’t give access to that ‘research.’ All I found was that there were 35 women in the study, which is tiny. We don’t know if it was blinded, peer-reviewed, or done by an unbiased independent body. I’m guessing ‘no’ to all of these. If I’m right, this means that their research was flawed.
BeachBody Optimize is BeachBody’s digestive enzyme product that they claim “helps supports nutrient absorption and bioavailability.*”
Note the asterisk, which takes you to a disclaimer stating that this claim hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA.
At a dosing of 4-6 capsules a day, this $60 USD supplement, with its ‘proprietary blend’ of enzymes (proprietary blends are problematic) will last you 20-30 days.
Digestive enzyme supplements often contain other ingredients, such as probiotics.
As I wrote in my post about probiotics, probiotic supplements are effective for very specific things (for example, medication-induced diarrhea), and in very specific strains. Just like digestive enzymes, probiotics are often sold as something beneficial for everyone, just because they’re ‘safe.’
The GutHealth product by Arbonne is $69 USD/30 day supply, and contains various digestive enzymes that include protease, lipase, amylase, and probiotics.
These supplements are part of the MLM racket that targets women (read how, here) and makes us believe that we can’t be healthy or ‘optimize’ our health if we don’t take handfuls of supplements.
And look at the ‘complementary product’ suggestions on the upper left. MLMs are always with the upsell.
Digestive enzyme side effects
While digestive enzyme supplements are generally safe, the aren’t without side effects.
Why am I bloated? Do I need digestive enzymes?
Bloating can occur for various reasons, as I outline in my post about it here.
Just having food in your stomach can give you a ‘bloated’ feel, but it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you.
Frequent bloating that’s accompanied by pain, diarrhea, constipation, bloody stools may be a sign of something serious, and you should definitely see a doctor if you have those symptoms.
Self-treating with digestive enzymes isn’t recommended.
Honestly, unless you have a digestive enzyme production issue, you do not need to take digestive enzyme supplements. Just taking them because some influencer told you that they’ll help you ‘absorb more protein’ from your food is a bad reason. Taking more digestive enzymes via supplementation does not help you break down or absorb your food better if your enzyme levels from your own body are not low. Please, save your money.
Most people selling digestive enzymes, say that the symptoms of low digestive enzyme production are bloating, constipation, or diarrhea, or just general G.I. issues. While this is true, the problem with telling people this – besides the fact that most of us don’t have an enzyme deficiency and won’t benefit from these supplements – is that these symptoms are vague and overlap with the symptoms from a lot of serious conditions. Influencers are not qualified to diagnose you with any of these.
Digestive enzyme production decreases as we age, but this does generally does not apply to people who are not elderly. Also, not all elderly people will benefit from digestive enzymes or even need them.
As with a lot of things in the wellness industry, we’ve been trained to believe that our bodies do not produce enough digestive enzymes, or that more equals better. Nothing could, be farther from the truth, and most wellness schemes are created to separate us from our money along with the fact that there is no way to measure, whether or not, they’re effective.
If you have symptoms that just aren’t going away, please do not self-treat them. See a doctor or a dietitian. And please – don’t let anyone convince you that your body is broken or that you need these sorts of supplements to have a healthy life.