Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) can get difficult and expensive to manage. To make it worse, it can keep you away from your favorite food and even get in the way of socializing as you become super-conscious about what you can’t eat at a party.
IBS is a long-term condition and there’s no “cure” for it. However, it can be managed using medications and lifestyle changes. One dietary change that’s very popular is trying a low-FODMAP diet.
FODMAPs stand for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols and can trigger bloating, abdominal pain, and cramping in IBS patients. Digestive enzymes can help your body break down FODMAPs and may improve your IBS symptoms. One example of a digestive enzyme is Beano, and in this article, we’ll take a look at what it is and how effective it is (according to science!).
What are digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are chemical molecules that break down large food particles into easily digestible, smaller molecules.
The food you consume has large molecules (like fats and complex carbohydrates) that can’t diffuse across your gut lining to enter the bloodstream. This is why the body produces a number of digestive enzymes to break these macromolecules into their building blocks (like glucose). These simple molecules can diffuse across the gut lining easily to enter the blood, and this is how the body derives energy from diet.
Examples of digestive enzymes include:
- Pepsin — breaks down protein in the stomach and activates many other protein-breaking enzymes
- Amylase — breaks complex carbs into simpler sugars like maltose
- Lipase — breaks fat into smaller molecules (fatty acids and glycerol)
- Lactase — breaks down the dairy sugar lactose into glucose and galactose
- Trypsin — breaks protein into amino acids
How are digestive enzymes helpful for IBS patients?
Many digestive enzyme supplements make bold claims like promoting good nutrient absorption and improving colon health. It’s important to note that these supplements are not regulated by the FDA. So while they’re definitely safe, it’s hard to say how much truth there is to these claims.
However, at a fundamental level, it’s easy to understand why digestive enzymes can help IBS patients. For example, the enzyme xylose isomerase breaks down fructose, the ‘M’ in FODMAP (monosaccharide). If you take a xylose isomerase pill before eating a high-fructose meal, less fructose will be delivered to your large intestine.
This means the bacteria will produce relatively less gas compared to if you hadn’t taken the supplement, which can reduce the intensity of IBS symptoms like bloating, gas, cramping, and pain.
Some IBS patients are also naturally deficient in one or more digestive enzymes. Lactase (which breaks down the milk sugar lactose) deficiency is common in IBS patients, and these people can’t consume dairy products without experiencing bloating and nausea.
In these patients, digestive enzyme supplements can be a godsend, especially when they have to attend a social event where they’re likely to consume food that can trigger their symptoms.
Does Beano work?
Beano is the trade name of an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase, which breaks down galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). GOS are sugar molecules found in foods like:
- Soy milk
- Other cruciferous veggies
If you have IBS and get symptoms after eating one of these foods, Beano might be very helpful. In fact, it’s one of the few digestive enzyme supplements that has been shown by science to be effective.
Note that the regular version of Beano contains mannitol. Mannitol is a polyol, which makes the ‘P’ of FODMAP. If you’re intolerant to polyols, Beano might not be the ideal choice for you.
The science on digestive enzymes
Not a lot of research has been done on whether digestive enzymes can help IBS patients. However, several encouraging studies exist, and further research will hopefully make matters clearer.
One study investigated the effect of a supplement containing inositol, beta-glucan, and digestive enzymes on 90 people and found it significantly improved bloating, pain, and gas in these patients. In another study, 49 people with diarrhea-predominant were studied. Half the patients were given a digestive enzyme called lipase, while the other half was given placebo (no enzyme). Patients were then asked to switch their treatments. At the end of the study, 61% people preferred lipase over placebo and saw significant improvement in cramping, bloating, and tummy pain.
These studies indicate that digestive enzymes do work. Of course, the sample size is too small to say anything conclusively but the potential exists and has been scientifically demonstrated.
I’m intolerant to polyols, what should I do?
As mentioned earlier, Beano is a good supplement for managing IBS but contains polyol, which might trigger IBS symptoms in some people, making it counterproductive.
If you’re one of those, a broad-spectrum supplement like FODMAP Digestive Enzymes is a good idea because it works on most FODMAPs, making sure to reduce the load of all FODMAPs to the large intestine. This can be potentially more effective than Beano in people with polyol-intolerance.
Some digestive enzyme tips
Before you pull out your wallet to purchase your favorite supplement, you should know that digestive enzymes don’t work for everyone. They certainly do work, but each IBS patient is different, and before you add anything to your diet, it’s important to talk to a doctor.
It’s also important to use enzyme supplements exactly as directed on the packaging. Otherwise, they may lose their effectiveness. They are made to be used during the re-introduction phase of a low-FODMAP diet and should be used sensibly.
Finally, if you have coexisting conditions like diabetes and enzyme deficiencies like fructose intolerance, you must consult a doctor before trying a supplement.
Digestive enzyme supplements help the body break down FODMAPs and reduce their delivery to the large intestine. This reduces IBS symptoms like pain, bloating, and gas. Beano is an enzyme called alpha-galactosidase, and is good for patients who feel gassy after eating nuts and veggies like broccoli.
But Beano contains mannitol, a polyol, which can make IBS symptoms worse in some people. In that case, a mixed enzyme supplement like Casa de Sante FODMAP Digestive Enzymes can be useful.
Medically Reviewed by Onikepe Adegbola, MD PhD