What Are Digestive Enzymes?

They are a protein naturally produced in the gastrointestinal tract produced by the body to break food down into smaller particles or molecules so they can then be digested used as energy in the body.

Most of the time, taking digestive enzyme supplements is not necessary but for some digestive enzyme production is insufficient and supplementation is necessary for food digestion. Causes of digestive enzyme production deficiency include chronic pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, gastrointestinal surgeries, diseases of the gut such as coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, pancreatic cancer and genetics.

The 3 primary digestive enzymes include:

  • Amylase > breakdowns Carbohydrates
  • Protease > breakdowns Proteins
  • Lipase > breakdowns Fats

A common example of an enzyme deficiency is in the case of lactose intolerance

Common Digestive Enzymes Available on the Market

  • Lactase > Lactose breakdown (found in dairy products)
  • Alpha-galactosidase > Oligosaccharides breakdown (Legumes, beans & some nuts)
  • Xylose isomerase > fructose breakdown ( found in fruit and some vegetables)
  • Pancrealipase > Dietary fat breakdown
  • Diamine Oxidase > Histamine breakdown (found in high levels in some vegetables, fruit, alcohol, tinned fish, cured meats)
  • Invertase >sucrose (table sugar)> breakdown into fructose and glucose.

What does the research say about taking digestive enzymes?

Most research into digestive enzyme supplementation has focused on lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose) and alpha-galactosidase (the enzyme that breaks down oligosaccharides as mentioned above). 

They have been found to be helpful in managing symptoms of IBS in those with intolerances to lactose and oligosaccharides, however not as a standalone treatment but alongside dietary management and lifestyle changes.

Overall digestive enzymes could be a helpful part of managing your food intolerance or IBS symptoms, but will likely not be enough alone to manage symptoms but should be used alongside dietary strategies and stress and lifestyle management.

By Caitlin Scane, Accredited Practising Dietitian