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Should You Be Taking Digestive Supplements for Your Gut Health?

It seems like you see digestive supplements everywhere you turn. Prebiotics, probiotics and fiber supplements line the shelves of grocery stores and pharmacies. Your social media feed may be full of ads that claim to improve digestion, fight bloating and help you lose weight. Even that woman you chatted with at the gym might be talking about what a difference her herbal supplement is making.

It can be confusing to sort out the truth behind digestive supplements and to know whether you need one. We connected with Brogan Taylor, a dietitian with Banner – University Medicine, to learn more about who might need supplements, what they can do for you and how to choose one. 

What are digestive supplements?

Digestive supplements are products designed to help your digestive system break down the foods you eat and absorb the nutrients. When your digestive system works well, you can get the nutrition you need from food, support your immune system and have the energy you need for your activities and lifestyle.

Digestive system problems like bloating, gas and indigestion, on the other hand, can interfere with your life. “There are quite a few different types of digestive supplements, some that need prescriptions and others you can take over-the-counter,” Taylor said. They include:

  • Probiotics: These live, good-for-you bacteria help keep your gut microbiome healthy.
  • Prebiotics: These fibers feed the healthy probiotics in your gut.
  • Digestive enzymes: These substances help break down carbohydrates, proteins and fats so your body can absorb them. 
  • Fiber supplements: These carbohydrates, which you don’t digest, promote regular bowel movements and support digestive health.
  • Herbal supplements: These plant-based remedies may help with specific digestive symptoms or conditions.

How digestive supplements may help

Supplements can help your digestive system because they may:

  • Break down food into nutrients that your body can absorb more easily.
  • Maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria in your gut to help digestion, immunity and overall health.
  • Promote healthy bowel movements.
  • Reduce symptoms such as bloating, gas and indigestion.

Supplements may help with:

What about digestive enzymes?

Digestive enzymes help break carbohydrates, protein and fats into sugars, amino acids and fatty acids, which are easier to digest.

“Digestive enzymes start to be released even before we eat, when we smell and taste our food and when we anticipate eating,” Taylor said. 

“If you are not producing enough of these enzymes, you cannot completely digest your food. Symptoms can include bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain and gas, and in more severe cases, weight loss and nutrient deficiencies,” she said.

Digestive enzymes include:

  • Proteases: Enzymes such as pepsin and trypsin break down proteins into peptides and amino acids.
  • Lipases: Enzymes such as pancreatic lipase break down triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol.
  • Amylases: Enzymes such as salivary and pancreatic amylase help break down carbohydrates into smaller sugar molecules like glucose and maltose.

Your body produces digestive enzymes, and they’re also found in some foods, including many types of fruit. “These include tropical fruits like pineapple, papaya, kiwi, mango and banana. You can also find some digestive enzymes in raw honey, miso, kefir, sauerkraut, ginger and avocado,” Jordan said.

  • Digestive enzyme supplements may help with:
  • Improving digestion and reducing symptoms like bloating, gas, indigestion and diarrhea.
  • Absorbing nutrients.
  • Conditions like cystic fibrosis, Crohn’s disease, lactose intolerance, celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Pancreatic insufficiency: “Pancreatic enzymes such as Creon, Pertzye or Zenpep might be prescribed in this case,” Jordan said.  
  • Declines in enzymes because of aging.

How to choose digestive enzyme supplements

Before taking supplements, talk to your health care provider about your symptoms. “That way, you can rule out any more serious health conditions first, such as celiac disease, food allergies or pancreatic insufficiency,” Jordan said. “If you have ruled out various health conditions with your care team and continue to have symptoms, it may be helpful to add a digestive enzyme to see if it brings relief.”

It’s important to talk to your provider if you take medications for any other health conditions. Your provider can make recommendations based on your health, dietary habits and digestive concerns.

If you’re choosing a digestive enzyme supplement, you’ll want to consider:

  • Enzyme types and amounts: You may want a supplement that contains a blend of enzymes that targets a range of macronutrients. Enzyme activity is measured in units such as hemoglobin unit tyrosine (HUT) base, lipase unit (LU) and dextrinizing unit (DU). Higher activity levels mean they are more potent.
  • Quality and purity: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements. “It is very important to check that supplements are third-party tested. This helps you know that the supplement should be safe to use and that what they say is in it is actually in there,” Jordan said. Third-party testing agencies like, NSF or USP can help ensure quality and purity.
  • Dosage form: You may prefer capsules, tablets or chewables.
  • Allergen-free formulations: If you have food allergies or sensitivities, choose supplements free from common allergens like gluten, dairy, soy and artificial additives.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Make sure you’re getting good value for your money without compromising on quality.

How to get the most out of your supplements

Digestive enzyme supplements usually work best if you take them with meals. You can take some between meals, so check the label or ask your provider.

These lifestyle habits may also support your digestive health:

  • Eat a balanced diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Practice mindful eating habits such as chewing food thoroughly and eating slowly.
  • Manage stress through meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing or relaxation techniques.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep.
  • Avoid trigger foods that make digestive symptoms worse, such as high-fat or spicy foods.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine.

Possible side effects

For most people, digestive enzyme supplements are generally safe. You may notice:

  • Upset stomach, bloating, gas or diarrhea, especially at first.
  • Allergic reactions to ingredients in the supplements.
  • Medication interactions, especially with blood thinners or antacids. 

If you have any side effects or don’t think supplements are working, talk to your health care provider. Consult your provider before taking any supplements if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or considering supplements for children.

The bottom line

Digestive supplements, especially enzymes, are a popular choice for treating bloating, gas and diarrhea. They can work well, but before you start taking them, talk to your provider about health conditions that could be causing your symptoms and how to make the best choices in supplements.

For help getting to the bottom of your digestive issues and finding a supplement that’s right for you, reach out to the experts at Banner Health

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