Digestive issues are a common complaint during pregnancy. There are many over-the-counter (OTC) supplements that claim to help relieve this discomfort — like digestive enzymes, for instance. But are digestive enzymes safe to take while pregnant, and do they really work?
Digestion often changes during pregnancy due to shifting hormones, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. The hormone progesterone slows down the digestive process, which can cause symptoms like:
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OTC supplements like digestive enzymes for pregnancy claim to quell these unpleasant symptoms. But the FDA doesn't require these products to be proven safe or effective before they're sold, so there's no guarantee that any supplement you take is safe, contains the ingredients it says it does or produces the effects it claims.
What's more, there's little evidence to show that digestive enzymes can help with problems like heartburn, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
To help you determine if these products are for you, here's everything you need to know about taking different digestive enzymes while pregnant, including whether digestive enzymes are safe during pregnancy.
Papain — a type of enzyme that comes from papaya — is sometimes touted for its supposed ability to improve digestion, which is why you may have considered taking papaya enzymes for pregnancy nausea or heartburn.
There's some evidence to back up these claims. For instance, a 2013 study in Neuroendocrinology Letters found that when people with gastrointestinal dysfunction took a papaya preparation called Caricol every day for 40 days, they experienced less constipation and bloating.
However, other issues like heartburn did not improve. What's more, the study didn't survey pregnant people specifically, so more research is needed to better understand the effects of taking a papaya enzyme during pregnancy.
Some people also take papaya enzymes to support weight loss, but there's no evidence to support this use. Plus, losing weight during pregnancy is generally not recommended, as it may deprive you and your baby of fuel and nutrients, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
It's also unclear if papaya fruit is safe while you're pregnant. According to Kaiser Permanente, unripe papaya contains a latex substance that may cause uterine contractions that could lead to early labor, so it's best to avoid eating the unripe fruit.
Ripe papaya is thought to be safer — ultimately, though, the jury is still out on whether papaya is bad for pregnant people.
While raw papaya fruit differs from a supplement, papain does come from the fruit's latex. As a result, your best bet is to talk to your doctor before trying a papaya enzyme during pregnancy to make sure it's safe for you.
Can Papaya Enzyme Pills Cause Miscarriage?
The relationship between papaya extract or enzymes and pregnancy is still not totally clear, per Kaiser Permanente.
The latex substance in unripe papaya, however, can potentially trigger contractions and lead to early labor, which can be unsafe for you and your baby. That's why it's always best to talk to your doctor about taking papaya enzymes during pregnancy.
Bromelain enzymes come from pineapple plants, and are another common supplement thought to support digestion, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
However, there's no evidence to support using bromelain to ease digestive issues. What's more, little is known about whether these enzymes are safe to use while you're pregnant, per the NCCIH.
The takeaway: Skip the bromelain.
If you're pregnant and have lactose intolerance, you may benefit from a lactase enzyme.
Lactose intolerance is a condition where your body doesn't produce enough of the enzyme lactase, rendering you unable to fully digest the sugar in milk products, per the Mayo Clinic. It can cause symptoms like:
- Nausea (and sometimes vomiting)
- Stomach cramps
While these products are generally considered safe digestive enzymes to take while pregnant, clear it with your doctor before trying them to make sure it's right for you, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
If you experience symptoms like gas, bloating or diarrhea after eating beans or cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or kale, you may benefit from taking alpha-galactosidase enzymes (pregnant or not), according to the Cleveland Clinic.
This enzyme helps your body process a type of sugar called galactose, and products containing alpha-galactosidase (like Beano) have been found to help prevent digestive distress.
It's likely these digestive enzymes are safe to take while pregnant, but talk to your doctor before trying them to make sure it's OK for you.
Lipase enzymes in your body break down fat, per Harvard Health Publishing, and are also available in supplement form.
Some prescription supplements contain lipase, like pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy (PERT), per Johns Hopkins Medicine. You may require this prescription if you've been diagnosed with conditions like pancreatic enzyme insufficiency or pancreatitis and need certain enzymes medically replaced.
If this is the case for you, talk to your doctor about whether it's best to continue with PERT during your pregnancy.
Other lipase supplements are OTC and intended to ease digestive issues like reflux, gas, bloating and diarrhea, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
While some of these supplements — particularly ones that also contain lactase or alpha-galactosidase — may help relieve symptoms that crop up after eating troublesome foods like milk or beans, it's typically best to skip the supplements if you don't have any underlying digestive concerns like lactose intolerance.
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Pregnancy: How Your Digestion Changes"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “FDA 101: Dietary Supplements”
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Digestive enzyme supplements for heartburn?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Supplements: Nutrition in a pill?"
- Neuroendocrinology Letters: "Papaya preparation (Caricol®) in digestive disorders"
- Kaiser Permanente: "Pregnancy: Avoiding Papaya"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Weight Gain During Pregnancy: How Much Is Too Much?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Lactose intolerance"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Digestive Enzymes 101: Why They’re Important"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Treatment for Lactose Intolerance"
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: "Bromelain"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Digestive Enzymes and Digestive Enzyme Supplements"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.