Digestive enzymes are substances secreted predominately by the stomach and small intestine. After saliva and teeth have softened food, enzymes of the stomach (hydrochloric acid and pepsin) begin the breakdown process. As food transitions from the stomach to the small intestine, more enzymes are made by the pancreas gland to help finish the job. The ability to digest food properly is essential for the body, as without it, appropriate amounts of nutrients cannot be absorbed.

Detected through testing, or signs of mineral or vitamin deficiency, doctors will often ask patients to take digestive enzymes if the output from either the stomach or the pancreas appears to be low. Patients who are low on minerals such as iron or magnesium may need digestive help. Additionally, diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, result in inadequate pancreatic output of digestive enzymes.

Bloating after meals is a common indicator that food isn’t being properly digested. When this happens, food drags through the bowel waiting to be broken down, causing that bloating sensation. Enzymes speed up the digestion process so food doesn’t become stagnant in the stomach.

If digestion is really poor, food is sometimes pushed too quickly through the bowel, as it doesn’t really know what to do with the substance, other than excrete it. This results in loose bowels. Patients who often notice undigested food in their stool should consider digestive enzymes, since food is clearly not being broken down.

As with any supplement, everyone doesn’t need digestive enzymes. But for those who are running low in digestive output, they can provide dramatic relief for symptoms. Begin by taking 1-2 capsules toward the middle or end of a meal. You should not take digestive enzymes without consulting a physician if you have a history of stomach or intestinal ulcers.