I was first diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) during a study abroad trip to Costa Rica in 2011. After a few days there — eating simple foods like chicken, rice, beans, fruits, and vegetables — I got super sick, having diarrhea after every meal, along with terrible gas and bloating. It wasn't exactly fun to deal with in-between hiking rainforests and zip-lining through the mountains. So I went to a local doctor, and he told me I had IBS, a disorder that affects the large intestine and can lead to frequent cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation. He gave me probiotics and Alka-Seltzer tablets, which made the rest of the trip much more manageable.
Since then, I've learned a lot more about my condition. IBS is actually pretty common, affecting an estimated 10 to 15 percent of adults in the US — and though it isn't caused by anxiety, stress and anxiety can exacerbate the symptoms. I've been working for 10 years now to find ways to better manage my symptoms. My most recent find: digestive enzymes. After just two weeks of taking a digestive enzyme supplement, I noticed a drastic improvement in my bloating and stomach pain.
The supplement I bought, OLLY Beat the Bloat capsules ($18), contains a blend of digestive enzymes, along with dandelion extract, fennel extract, and ginger extract. The benefits touted on the bottle drew me in. The company claimed that the supplement could help relieve gas and upset stomach, and because dandelion is traditionally used to ease fluid retention, it would help my stomach feel less bloated, too. I figured it couldn't hurt — I was already experiencing uncomfortable bloating, gas pain, and digestive problems almost every day, depending on what I ate. Everything from too much fiber to dairy, fast food, and certain spices sent my stomach into a tailspin despite my daily regimen of probiotics, multivitamins and the occasional antacid.
I didn't notice any immediate changes with the supplement — but eventually, the lack of symptoms became obvious. I was able to eat without that telltale clenching of my stomach that usually causes me to run to the bathroom. I ate fast food at a Mexican restaurant, which would normally leave me feeling super bloated and uncomfortable for the rest of the night, and I felt . . . fine. It's hard to explain if you've never had stomach issues, but having my stomach feel calm, relaxed, and happy is so rare for me that my mood drastically improved as well. It wasn't just about my jeans feeling looser; it was about not feeling nauseous and sick and being able to enjoy my day a lot more.
Curious to know whether the benefits were legit or simply a placebo effect, I reached out to a gastroenterologist to learn more about the science behind this seemingly magic pill.
Can Digestive Enzymes Really Ease Symptoms of IBS?
"Digestive enzymes are proteins that are naturally made by your body that assist in breaking down food like proteins, fats, and carbohydrates into usable nutrients so they can be absorbed into the bloodstream and throughout the day," Niket Sonpal, MD, a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist in New York City, and faculty member at the Touro College of Medicine, told POPSUGAR. Asked about the sudden changes in my symptoms, Dr. Sonpal explained: "Your body is probably lacking the necessary digestive enzymes to break down food. Therefore, the supplement assists with the breakdown of food, which relieves symptoms of IBS and promotes healthy digestion."
Of course, digestive enzymes aren't the only solution for IBS sufferers — and many people, myself included, will need to try a few different remedies to find relief. These may include eliminating trigger foods, managing stress, exercising regularly, and more. Your doctor can help determine a treatment plan based on your specific symptoms. In extreme cases, "your doctor can prescribe antispasmodic drugs, like Levsin and Bentyl, that can stop muscle spasms by relaxing the smooth muscle of the gut," Dr. Sonpal said. "If you are experiencing constipation, your doctor may recommend laxatives such as polyethylene. Eating fiber-rich foods or taking over-the-counter fiber supplements may help ease diarrhea or constipation. IBS is different for everyone, and you need to find what works for you."
For me, reducing my intake of trigger foods, limiting fast food, and taking probiotics and digestive enzymes has helped effectively manage my IBS — and not having as many stomach problems has also helped ease my anxiety, again lowering the chances of an IBS flare. Science is pretty cool, right?
If you have IBS, you may have to experiment with different foods and talk to your doctor about recommended supplements or medicine to help manage your symptoms. As for me, I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing — and maybe book a 10-year anniversary trip to Costa Rica to really put this supplement to the test. (In the name of research, obviously!)