Health Benefits of Digestive Enzymes

Upset stomach.

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Digestive enzymes are proteins involved in the digestion of food. Found naturally in the body, digestive enzymes are also sold in dietary supplement form. Proponents claim that these enzymes can help treat a variety of health problems, such as digestive disorders.

Secreted by the pancreas, digestive enzymes aid the body in breaking down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates. When normal functioning of the pancreas is disrupted (due to illness or injury) resulting in insufficient enzyme production, the body may be unable to properly absorb these nutrients. Digestive enzyme supplements are thought to protect against this malabsorption.

Digestive enzyme supplements often contain a mixture of enzymes, such as proteolytic enzymes (needed to digest protein), lipase (needed to digest fat), and amylase (needed to digest carbohydrates). Proteolytic enzyme supplements are also available, such as bromelain and papain.


In alternative medicine, digestive enzymes are said to aid in the treatment of the following conditions:

In addition, proteolytic enzymes are said to lower cholesterol. Although digestive enzymes are normally taken with meals for digestive purposes, when taken in between meals on an empty stomach, they are said to stimulate the immune system, manage arthritis, reduce inflammation, improve liver health, and fight cancer.

Here's a look at some key findings on the potential health benefits of supplements containing digestive enzymes:

1) Irritable Bowel Syndrome

A digestive enzyme known as pancrelipase may alleviate some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, according to a pilot study published in Frontline Gastroenterology in 2011. 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 as cramping, bloating, and pain.

2) Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Several preliminary studies suggest that bromelain may help manage colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease. For example, a 2010 study published in Inflammatory Bowel Diseases found that bromelain helped decrease inflammation of the colon in mice with colitis.

3) Cancer

Digestive enzymes may be beneficial to people undergoing cancer treatment, according to a 2008 report published in Integrative Cancer Therapies. In their analysis of preliminary studies and clinical trials on the effects of enzyme therapy (including proteolytic enzymes) on people with cancer, the report's authors found that enzymes may reduce several side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation therapy (including nausea, fatigue, and weight loss).

4) Arthritis

Bromelain may help relieve pain related to osteoarthritis, according to a research review published in Arthritis Research & Therapy in 2006. Looking at nine clinical trials testing bromelain's effects on osteoarthritis patients, the review's authors found some evidence that bromelain may offer pain-reducing effects similar to those of diclofenac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug often prescribed for osteoarthritis).


Digestive enzymes may trigger a number of side effects, including stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting. In addition, some individuals may experience allergic reactions to digestive enzymes.

Where to Find It

Widely available for purchase online, digestive enzymes are sold in many natural-foods stores, drugstores, and stores specializing in dietary supplements.

Using It for Health

Due to the limited research, it's too soon to recommend digestive enzymes as a treatment for any condition. It's important to note that self-treating a chronic condition with digestive enzymes and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. If you're considering the use of digestive enzymes, make sure to consult your physician first.

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