The holidays are chock full of fun, festivities, and food—lots of rich, delicious food. So, no matter how hard you try, it's almost impossible not to overeat this time of year. That's because, according to the Calorie Control Council, a single holiday meal can easily pack upwards of 3,000 calories. And all that extra food on your plate can lead to holiday bloat and a host of other uncomfortable gastrointestinal issues. That's where digestive enzymes come in.
What Are Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes break down the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in the foods you eat. From the moment you sit down to your holiday feast throughout the entire digestion process, your body produces these enzymes. But the catch is that the natural enzymes in your system are made in limited quantities. So eating too much food—and the wrong kinds of food—can overload your digestive system, causing the typical after-effects of those holiday indulgences: bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain, and more.
Types of Digestive Enzymes
There are many types of enzymes and they all play an important role in the digestive process. Four of the main digestive enzymes are:
- Amylase, which is produced by the salivary glands and pancreas, digests starches into smaller molecules which are more readily absorbed.1
- Lactase, which is found in the small intestine, breaks down the lactose in dairy products.2
- Lipase breaks down fats, including triglycerides, and absorbs fat-soluble vitamins.3
- Protease, which is made in the pancreas, helps the body digest dietary protein.4
The Benefits of Digestive Enzymes
Whether you overindulge a little this holiday or have an ongoing gastrointestinal issue, digestive enzymes can provide the relief you’re looking for. Here are five common digestive conditions that benefit from enzyme support.
Indigestion. Functional dyspepsia—often called chronic indigestion—is one of the most common functional gastrointestinal disorders, affecting more than 20 percent of the population.5 But supplemental enzymes can blunt the effects of indigestion. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, parallel-group study appearing in the Journal of Medicinal Food, 40 patients were randomly assigned to receive either an enzyme combo that included amylase, protease, lactase, and lipase or a placebo. After the 60-day trial period, the patients taking the enzyme blend exhibited a reduction in their symptoms, whereas those taking the placebo did not.6
Fermentable carbohydrate digestion. Beans are infamous for causing flatulence. That’s because the body has trouble breaking down the complex carbohydrates in beans and other high FODMAP foods such as garlic, onion, wheat, and several fruits and vegetables. However, enzymes can help reduce the severity of your flatulence. And the proof is in the pudding (or rather in the bean dip): a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on healthy volunteers showed that those who consumed digestive enzymes during a meal of cooked beans saw significantly diminished intestinal gas production and gas-related symptoms.7
Lactose intolerance. This digestive disorder results from a lactase deficiency in the small intestine, which prevents the body from fully breaking down the lactose in milk and other dairy products. Symptoms can include bloating, abdominal pain, gas, and diarrhea—and it’s common in patients with gastrointestinal tract diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease. Because some holiday traditions like that glass of eggnog are admittedly worth it, over-the-counter digestive enzymes like lactase can help prevent lactose indigestion by 50 percent.8
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD, which encompasses Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is a chronic inflammatory condition that can do permanent damage to the digestive tract—and symptoms can have a severe impact on a person’s quality of life. Yet, in a study conducted at an Italian university, patients who received a supplement containing digestive enzymes reported reduced abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence after four weeks of treatment.9
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Unlike IBD, IBS doesn’t have the same enduring inflammatory effects on the intestines, though symptoms can still be fairly intense. Digestive enzymes have a long track record of relieving post-meal IBS symptoms including diarrhea, abdominal distension, flatulence, bloating, and a feeling of fullness.10
How to Get More Digestive Enzymes
There are two natural ways to increase your digestive enzyme count: through supplementation and through the foods you eat.
Supplements. As the previous examples demonstrate, taking a digestive enzyme supplement can effectively help manage a variety of gastrointestinal issues. To enhance digestive support even further, opt for a supplement that combines digestive enzymes with probiotic strains shown to support healthy GI function. This combo not only aids digestion, but experimental data show that it dramatically lowers harmful LDL cholesterol while increasing beneficial HDL levels.11
Foods. Digestive enzymes also occur naturally in plant foods, and eating them can improve your digestion. Pineapples, mangoes, bananas, avocados, raw honey, ginger, and fermented foods like kefir and sauerkraut are all good sources of digestive enzymes as well as important vitamins and nutrients. On the flip side, be sure to also cut back on highly processed foods, which can put a strain on your digestive system and overwhelm your enzymes’ ability to efficiently break them down.
Support healthy digestion this holiday season with a high-quality digestive enzyme supplement. From preventing discomfort following a big meal to addressing a recurring condition, these enzymes offer a natural way to achieve digestive bliss all year long.
- Peyrot des Gachons C. Salivary amylase: digestion and metabolic syndrome. Current Diabetes Report. 2016;16:102.
- Ojetti V. The effect of oral supplementation with Lactobacillus reuteri or tilactase in lactose intolerant patients: randomized trial. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences. 2010;14(3):163–70.
- Pirahanchi Y. “Biochemistry, Lipase.” In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. 2023.
- López-Otín C, Bond JS. Proteases: multifunctional enzymes in life and disease. Journal of Biology and Chemistry. 2008;283(45):30433–37.
- Francis P. Functional Dyspepsia. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. 2023.
- Majeed M. Evaluation of the safety and efficacy of a multienzyme complex in patients with functional dyspepsia: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2018;21(11):1120–28.
- Di Stefano M. The effect of oral alpha-galactosidase on intestinal gas production and gas-related symptoms. Digestive Diseases and Sciences. 2007;52(1):78–83.
- Ratajczak AE. Lactose intolerance in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases and dietary management in prevention of osteoporosis. Nutrition. 2021;82:111043.
- Spagnuolo R. Beta-glucan, inositol and digestive enzymes improve quality of life of patients with inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome. European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences. 2017;21(2 Suppl):102–7.
- Graham DY. Enzyme therapy for functional bowel disease-like post-prandial distress. Journal of Digestive Disease. 2018;19: 650–56.
- Ichim TE. Experimental support for the effects of a probiotic/digestive enzyme supplement on serum cholesterol concentrations and the intestinal microbiome. Journal of Translational Medicine. 2016;14(1):184.
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.