Digestive Enzyme Therapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Young woman with a belly ache
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Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a disorder that affects the digestive system. People with the disorder experience pain, muscle spasms and irregular bowel movements that are related to stress, diet and movement through the digestive tract. The idea of using digestive enzymes to help keep the digestive system moving fluidly makes logical sense and preliminary studies indicate some positive results. However, you should always consult with a physician before beginning a therapeutic regimen.

Digestive Enzymes

Digestive enzymes are proteins found in the body that help encourage chemical changes, which assists in the breakdown of food in the digestive system. There are three types of digestive enzymes: lipsases digest fat, proteolytic enzymes digest protein, and amylases digest carbohydrates. Typically, all three types of enzymes are taken at once. Pancreatin is a supplement that contains all three and is often given as digestive enzyme therapy.

Treatment with Digestive Enzymes

The main use of digestive enzymes is in the treatment of pancreatic insufficiency, helping to reduce pain for those with pancreatitis. They may also be useful in treating indigestion by aiding in the digestion of fats, leading to a reduction in gas and bloating. There is some evidence that digestive enzymes are also useful in treating Celiac disease when paired with a gluten-free diet, but only in the early stages of treatment, according to the University of Michigan Health System. Digestive enzymes may also be useful in treating food allergies or sensitivities, bacterial growth in the small intestine, and improving nutrient malabsorption in Crohn’s disease; however, the research evidence is still minimal at this time.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome is a disorder of the intestinal tract. Individuals with IBS often experience significant pain and muscle spasms in their abdomen, gas, bloating, and irregular bowel movements, such as constipation or diarrhea. Symptoms are often exacerbated by eating large meals, taking certain medicines, stress, and consuming certain foods such as caffeine, alcohol, wheat, and milk products. Treatment for the disorder tends to focus on particular symptoms, such as laxatives for constipation or medication for diarrhea. Antispasmodic drugs may also be prescribed to help control pain and spasms. However, each individual responds differently and may need a medication regimen tailored to their specific symptom presentation.

IBS and Digestive Enzymes

Based on evidence of their efficacy with other intestinal conditions, digestive enzymes may be useful in treating IBS. A study published in 1999 in the "Digestive Diseases and Sciences" journal found that taking proteolytic enzymes following a high fat meal led to reduced gas, bloating, and fullness, suggesting possible benefits in using this with IBS patients. A study published in 2011 in the "European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences" examined IBS patients receiving a combination of digestive enzymes, inositol, and beta-glucan. They demonstrated significant symptom improvement over the placebo group, with reduced gas, bloating, and abdominal pain. These findings suggest potential usefulness of digestive enzyme therapy for those with IBS; however, more research is needed. You should use them cautiously after consulting with a doctor.

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