Digestive enzymes are substances naturally produced in the mouth, stomach, and intestines to help break food down into usable nutrients.
Research shows that these enzymes play a critical role in digestion and nutrient assimilation, in immune response, cognitive acceleration, and cellular detoxification among other things (1).
There are various types of digestive enzymes found in humans, some of which include amylase, pepsin, lipase, trypsin, cellulase, lactase, sucrase, and maltase. However, all fall under one of three categories: proteases, lipases, and amylases.
Protease breaks down proteins into amino acids and is produced in the stomach, pancreas, and small intestine. In the stomach, pepsin is the main digestive enzyme attacking proteins. Lipase breaks down fats into glycerol and fatty acids and is also produced in the pancreas and small intestine. Lipids play many roles, including long-term energy storage and supporting cellular health. Amylase breaks down starches and carbohydrates into sugars and is produced in the salivary glands, pancreas, and small intestine.
Since digestive enzymes work best at your normal body temperature (98.6 Fahrenheit), so when you have a high body temperature (like when you are sick and have a fever) the structure of enzymes breaks down and stop functioning properly.
Some digestive enzymes are naturally found in certain food sources such as bananas and pineapple. Often times people supplement with enzymes when they’ve had some sort of pancreas malfunction, have a digestive issue like IBS, or they want to optimize their diet and nutrition.
1Digestive enzymes can help with IBS symptoms. According to a 2011 pilot study published in Frontline Gastroenterology, some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome might be alleviated with the supplementation of the digestive enzyme known as pancrelipase. For the study, 69 patients with irritable bowel syndrome were given either pancrelipase or a placebo before consuming foods known to trigger their symptoms.
Study results showed that those treated with pancrelipase experienced a significantly greater improvement in such symptoms like cramping, bloating, and pain (2).
Another 2011 study investigated the use of a supplement mixture of beta-glucan, inositol, and digestive enzymes marketed as Biointol in 90 people. The supplement significantly improved IBS symptoms like bloating, gas, and abdominal pain (27).
One more double-blind pilot study involved 49 people with diarrhea-predominant IBS showed that participants taking a pancreatic lipase supplement called PEZ had a significant improvement in cramping, stomach rumbling, bloating, urge to defecate, pain, and loose stools compared to the placebo group (3).
Lastly, a study 2013 study found that a supplement containing the digestive enzyme papain led to a significant improvement in bloating, constipation, and painful bowel movements in 126 people with IBS (4).
2Digestive enzymes can help speed up exercise recovery. A 2009 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise set out to determine the effectiveness of digestive enzyme supplementation (specifically protease supplements) in reducing eccentric exercise-induced skeletal muscle damage and inflammation to speed up the recovery of muscle function.
In this study, subjects were randomly assigned to consume 5.83 g daily of either a cellulose placebo or a proteolytic supplement containing fungal proteases, bromelain, and papain.
They weight trained via extension/flexion of the quadriceps muscle group for 21 days. The researchers concluded that the group who consumed digestive enzymes reduced strength losses by regulating leukocyte activity and inflammation (5).
In another 2007 double-blinded, placebo-controlled, crossover design study, researchers examined the effects on DOMS and selected markers of muscle damage in correlation to the supplementation of digestive enzymes.
Twenty men were randomly assigned to either an enzyme supplement group or a placebo group.
After testing and 2 weeks of rest, the subjects were crossed over into the opposite group and performed the same tests as during their first visits, but with the opposite limb. Overall, isometric forearm flexion strength was much greater (7.6%) for the supplement group than for the placebo group.
These findings provided initial evidence that the protease supplement may be useful for reducing strength loss immediately after eccentric exercise and for aiding in short-term strength recovery (6).
A study published in Enzymes Enzyme Therapy showed significant improvements after the use of digestive enzymes for athletic injuries and subsequent recovery. Swelling recovery time decreased from 6 days, hematoma recovery time decreased 10 days, and restriction of movement, inflammation and unfit for training recovery time decreased by more than half (7).
3Digestive enzymes can help reduce the side effects of cancer treatments. A 2008 report published in Integrative Cancer Therapies showed that digestive enzymes may be beneficial to people undergoing cancer treatment. According to the authors, several side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy including nausea, fatigue, and weight loss were reduced with the supplementation of digestive enzymes (8).
4Digestive enzymes can help fight cancer off cancer growth. Pineapple, botanically named Ananas comosus, has been used for centuries as a folk medicine by the indigenous inhabitants of Central and South America to treat a range of ailments. The medicinal qualities of the plant are attributed to bromelain, a pineapple stem extract, which has been available as a pharmaceutical product since 1956 (9).
A 2013 test tube study showed that digestive enzyme Bromelain blocked colon and stomach cancer cells. Bromelain also appears to impair cancer cell survival by blocking the Akt pathway (10).
Another 2014 test tube study showed that bromelain exerts anti-proliferative and proapoptotic effects in colorectal carcinoma cells and may help prevent colon cancer (11).
Another recent test-tube study showed that both bromelain and papain stopped growth and caused cell death in human bile duct cancer cells (12).
However, human trials are needed to confirm the efficacy in human cancer patients.
5Digestive enzymes can help relieve pain from osteoarthritis. According to a research review (involving 9 trials) published in Arthritis Research & Therapy in 2006, certain digestive enzymes may help relieve pain related to osteoarthritis. The review concluded that the digestive enzyme bromelain helped reduce pain similar to often prescribed osteoarthritis NSAIDs (13).
Another 2004 review involving 10 studies showed that bromelain help reduce joint stiffness and swelling in persons with osteoarthritis (14).
Lastly, a 2004 study showed that a supplement containing bromelain and trypsin was as effective as traditional anti-inflammatory drugs at reducing osteoarthritis-related pain (15).
Digestive enzymes can reduce muscle soreness. A 2009 male study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Medicine showed that digestive enzymes were able to reduce post-workout muscle soreness compared to the placebo. There were even trends towards reductions in plasma indicators of inflammation (high sensitivity C-reactive protein) and muscle damage (creatine phosphokinase and myoglobin) (16).
Another 2004 study found that people who consumed, before and after downhill running, a supplement containing the digestive enzyme bromelain, chymotrypsin, trypsin, and papain showed quicker muscle recovery and reduced muscle soreness than the placebo group (17).
6Digestive enzymes can help with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). One 2010 animal study published in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases found that bromelain helped decrease inflammation of the colon (18).
7Improve digestion and nutrient delivery. The main role of digestive enzymes are to break down food for easier digestion. However, an often overlooked benefit is that they also help the body absorb nutrients better.
One 2013 study involving patients with indigestion issues found that digestive enzymes helped the body absorb nutrients better while also significantly improving common indigestion issues such as belching, heartburn, bloating and loss of appetite. (19)
Another 2014 animal study showed that kiwi extract (which contains the digestive enzyme actinidin) helped improve the breakdown, digestion, and absorption of proteins, especially difficult ones such as meat (20).
8Digestive enzymes can help decrease overall systemic inflammation. A 2005 study showed that the digestive enzyme bromelain help reduce inflammation in the sinuses (21).
Another 2008 animal study showed that the digestive enzymes serratiopeptidase, chymotrypsin, and trypsin were more effective at reducing inflammation than aspirin (22).
Digestive enzymes can help wounds heal faster. A 2012 animal study investigated how digestive enzymes could be used to help burn wounds heal faster. In the study animals who had burns were either treated with a placebo or the enzyme agent. Another group free of burns was also treated with the enzyme agent to see if it would damage normal healthy skin.
The researchers found that the enzyme agent (containing bromelain) helped to speed healing and accelerate new tissue growth. It also had no negative effects on normal healthy skin (23).
Another 2010 animal study confirmed this as well (24).
9Digestive enzymes can shorten recovery time after surgery. One 2008 study published in the International Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, showed reduced swelling and pain intensity when patients who had just undergone dental surgery and took a supplement containing 5 mg of the proteolytic enzyme serrapeptase (25).
However, not all the research is promising.
A 2016 review took a look at digestive enzymes to help speed healing in patients who underwent cosmetic procedures. This review contains clinical trials that evaluated prevention and/or treatment of post-procedure ecchymosis or edema with oral arnica, topical arnica, and oral bromelain (26).
It was found that enzymes might be able to recovery times, but more research is necessary before making any definite claims.
Another 2017 study involving 64 patients found insufficient evidence that the combination of Arnica and Bromelain is effective at producing a statistically significant difference in ecchymosis following upper eyelid blepharoplasty (27).
10Digestive enzymes may help relieve shingles symptoms. One 1995 study showed that proteolytic enzymes were as effective as medication to treat the symptoms of shingles for 192 people including neuralgia, skin lesions and pain (28).
11Digestive enzymes may help ease a sore throat. A 1976 study gave 100 people, with different types of sore throat diseases, throat lozenges containing 2mg of the digestive enzyme papain.
The study showed that the lozenges helped to relieve redness and swelling from sore throats, compared to the placebo. However, it’s unclear if the other ingredients involved had any effect as well (29).
1Digestive enzymes may cause IBS like symptoms. Digestive enzymes can sometimes cause an upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea.
2Digestive enzymes may increase your risk of bleeding. Some digestive enzymes have a mild blood thinning effect and therefore shouldn’t be taken with blood thinning medications. If you are having surgery, avoid enzymes for a month before undergoing the knife.
3Digestive enzymes may cause an allergic reaction. Topical digestive enzymes may cause blisters and skin irritation.
4Digestive enzymes may become ineffective when swallowed. Since digestive enzymes are technically proteins, once swallowed, stomach acid tries to break it down just like any other protein. If this happens, these enzymes won’t survive long enough to do its job. To help avoid this, choose brands of digestive enzymes that are enteric-coded, so that they break down in the small intestine instead.
5Digestive enzymes may lower blood sugar. This can interfere with patients who are diabetic or who take medications that lower blood sugar.
6Digestive enzymes may be a problem for pregnant women (or women trying). A 2002 animal study suggests that eating papaya (rich in digestive enzymes) may cause fetal poisoning or birth defects when consumed in large amounts (30).
There is no standard dose; the amount will vary based on the type and strength of the enzyme supplement. Most digestive enzyme supplements are available without a prescription, while some, such as lactase, may also be prescribed by your doctor.
Some types of digestive supplements are to be taken with your meal, while others should be taken shortly before eating.
Don’t chew or grind up tablets unless instructed to do so by your healthcare professional. If you have a hard time swallowing, open the capsule and disperse powder contents over your food, and then eat immediately.
Are digestive enzymes safe to take? Yes, digestive enzyme supplements are safe to take as they are naturally occurring.
What do digestive enzymes do? Natural digestive enzymes, such as lipase, amylase, and protease, aid in breaking down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. Additionally, enzyme supplements can be taken to help improve digestion. But if you take these supplements at the wrong time, they may be completely ineffective.
What’s the difference between digestive enzymes and probiotics? Enzymes are biologically active proteins, while probiotics are living bacterial organisms. Enzymes are present throughout the body while probiotics are concentrated in the digestive system. Enzymes can be naturally produced in the body but probiotics cannot.
Do digestive enzymes cause weight gain? Enzymes are designed to break down foods more thoroughly which allows more absorption of the vitamins, minerals, and calories in food. So, taking enzymes can actually cause weight gain IF one is not aware of how much is eaten.
Do digestive enzymes help with water retention? Yes, digestive enzymes can help alleviate symptoms of water retention.
Are there prescription digestive enzymes? Prescription enzymes (Creon, Zenpep, and others) contain pancrelipase, a mixture of the digestive enzymes amylase, lipase, and protease, and has a special coating on the pill so it will survive stomach acid and make it to the small intestine.
How often should you take digestive enzymes? Most people find it easiest to pop them just before they sit down to eat, but anytime within about 30 minutes of your meal is going to be beneficial. If you have a high-quality product, most people need 1-2 capsules with their major meals.
Do digestive enzymes cause gas? No, in fact, they help alleviate gas. Enzymes are catalysts that work within the body to get chemical processes going, specifically digestion. Without them, our food does not get properly digested, and nutrients do not get absorbed. As mentioned before, undigested foods also cause excess gas and bloating.
Can you take probiotics and digestive enzymes at the same time? No, in order to keep your probiotics and digestive enzymes working together instead of sabotaging your efforts, be sure to take them separately and at different times of the day.
What are the best foods for digestive enzymes? The best foods to obtain a natural source of digestive enzymes are pineapple, papaya, mango, honey, bananas, avocados, kefir, and sauerkraut.
Can digestive enzymes be taken on an empty stomach? Yes, you can take digestive enzymes on an empty stomach. If you take digestive enzymes before you eat and your stomach is empty – the digestive enzymes can be absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly (in less than 3 minutes). To help digest the meal you’re eating, it’s best to take the enzymes during or immediately after the meal.
Digestive enzymes are crucial for optimal health and are vital parts of inflammation management, energy production, nutrient absorption, and even brain health.
Unfortunately, with age, increased stress, or poor nutrition, your body tends to slow enzyme production – and this means the food you eat doesn’t break down properly.
This is a problem because it means you’re not going to get all the vitamins nutrients you should and it puts stress on your digestive tract, which can cause problems all over your body.
Thus it becomes imperative to eat digestive enzyme rich foods such as kefir, pineapple, and bananas or supplement with them.
However, if you’re in good health, follow a healthy diet, and your doctor says your enzyme levels are healthy, don’t start taking enzyme supplements simply hoping to get a little healthier as enzymes can have some side effects in the body.
If you have a chronic disease such as cancer or if your doctor has told you that you’re lacking in certain nutrients, then be sure to discuss whether to take digestive enzyme supplements and what kind (there’s a lot) you should take. They’ll help you determine if you need to take them and what your dosing should be.