The symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can be uncomfortable and interfere with an individual’s quality of life. Researchers need to carry out more studies on digestive enzymes to prove whether they are helpful for this condition.

Digestive enzymes are proteins that regulate the chemical reactions the body uses to digest food. The enzymes break down the food into nutrient pieces until they are small enough for the bloodstream to absorb them to carry them throughout the body.

Digestive enzymes help the body break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Some people believe that supplementing the body’s supply of these enzymes will promote healthy digestion and relieve symptoms of IBS.

For many of the 1 in 5 Americans who have IBS, common medications do not always provide relief.

As a result, doctors often recommend lifestyle changes as the first form of treatment. Lifestyle changes include exercising regularly, reducing stress, and modifying the diet to remove trigger foods. A healthcare professional may prescribe medications for diarrhea, constipation, and stomach pain to treat the symptoms of IBS.

Sometimes, none of these treatments work. As a result, doctors may try other treatment options.

Specific digestive enzymes take their name from what they break down. For example, the enzyme lactase helps the body break down lactose, a sugar found in milk and other dairy products.

There are different classes of enzymes that doctors group according to the chemical process they use. For example, doctors consider all digestive enzymes hydrolases because they use water molecules to break down food into its basic building blocks.

Although scientists need to carry out more research, they have reported promising results.

One older study found that when individuals who frequently suffered from diarrhea after meals took the enzyme pancrelipase (PEZ) before eating, they reported a reduction in their symptoms.

A 2011 study of 50 people with IBS tested the effects of the supplement Biointol — a combination of digestive enzymes, fiber, and sugar. The researchers compared these patients to a control group of 40 people with IBS who did not take the supplement.

The results showed that Biointol reduced symptoms for the group of 50, such as bloating, gas, and abdominal pain, compared with the control group.

A 2017 study compared the effects of Asacol, an anti-inflammatory drug that doctors often use as a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and Biointol. In this study, researchers gave Asacol to a group of people with IBS and IBD, and Asacol and Biointol to a second group.

After four weeks, the group taking the combination reported fewer symptoms, such as bloating and gas, than the group taking only Asacol.

Because many people with IBS have problems digesting specific foods, it is possible that taking digestive enzyme supplements known to help the body digest these foods will reduce symptoms.

Research has shown that when dairy products trigger IBS symptoms, taking the digestive enzyme lactase before a person consumes dairy products increases their tolerance to these foods.

PEZ, which can help the body digest fats, sugars, and proteins, has the commercial name Creon. It is a combination of lipase, protease, and amylase, which are enzymes that the pancreas produces. Doctors may prescribe PEZ for individuals who have a poorly functioning or damaged pancreas.

Many forms of digestive enzyme supplements are widely available over the counter (OTC), and professionals mostly consider them to be safe if a person takes them according to their doctor’s recommendation.

Older research suggests that it is important to note whether digestive enzyme supplements are made from animal or microbial sources because that can significantly affect the potency of the medication.

Some people may experience side effects. A person should always talk with a healthcare professional before taking a new supplement.

The body’s ability to manufacture enzymes decreases as part of the aging process. Also, genetics, stomach viruses, and stress can all wear away at the body’s store of digestive enzymes.

It is always best to take digestive enzymes, or any supplement, only after consultation with a doctor. It is possible a doctor may prescribe a prescription-strength enzyme.

Prescription-strength enzymes

Prescription-strength enzymes are very different from OTC supplements. It is also a good idea to talk with a doctor first. Digestive enzymes for IBS, or general health purposes, can contain blends of different enzymes, such as amylase, lipase, lactase, bromelain, and more.

Precautions when choosing a supplement

Before buying or taking any supplements, a person should check for any additional ingredients in each capsule, especially if food sensitivities are an issue. Unless a supplement says that it does not contain soy, dairy, or gluten, there is a chance that it does.

The price and quality of digestive enzymes can vary significantly. A person should review dosages and measurement units with a healthcare professional to make sure that the product is worth the price and will deliver the level of enzymes they need.

People should always take these supplements with food. When taking digestive enzymes for IBS, it is best to do so when first sitting down to eat or slightly before.

Potential side effects of using digestive enzymes for IBS symptoms can range from the rare and more serious to the more common and less serious.

The more common side effects include:

  • gas
  • bloating
  • loose stools or diarrhea
  • constipation
  • nausea
  • stomach discomfort
  • greasy stools
  • a headache
  • vertigo
  • losing weight

More severe side effects include:

  • Allergic reactions: These can include hives, difficulty breathing, and swelling around the face and require immediate emergency treatment.
  • Severe stomach pain: Anyone experiencing serious stomach pains should consult a doctor as soon as possible.

The consensus is that there is not, as yet, any clear scientific evidence that taking digestive enzymes for IBS is effective.

However, after talking with a doctor, many people may benefit from their inclusion in part of a larger treatment plan for IBS.