The Truth About Supplements and IBS

The Truth About Supplements and IBS

I think it’s safe to say that achieving an adequate diet can be a challenge for anyone.

And for those of us struggling with IBS, it can feel almost impossible! We tend to avoid foods for fear of uncomfortable symptoms… And we are left seeking supplements to fill in any nutritional gaps. You may even find yourself scouring health food stores for quick-fixes because you don’t know where else to turn. Does that sound familiar? I know I’ve been there!

In today’s blog post, we will explore 3 common health supplements—digestive enzymes, fibre supplements and fish oil—and how they impact those with IBS. We will share the latest research so you know which supplements will help your digestive issues, and where to save your hard-earned money!

 

Digestive enzymes

There is no doubt that digestive enzymes are important.

But did you know that we produce them on our own?! That’s right! These naturally-occurring chemicals are secreted by various organs in the body (mostly the pancreas) to breakdown nutrients and fuel everyday activities. Our main digestive enzymes are:

  • Amylases → break down carbohydrates in our mouth and intestines
  • Proteases → break down protein in our stomach and intestines
  • Lipases → break down fat in our intestines

 

The vast majority of us produce enough of these enzymes by just existing and do not require supplementation.

When digestive enzymes first hit the market, they were only available by prescription! These medications provided a powerful dose of enzymes for those with diagnosed pancreatitis, cystic fibrosis, or even pancreatic cancer.

Naturally, a lower grade, over-the-counter digestive enzyme supplement was soon available and marketed to those of us with digestive issues. This is what you’d find in health food stores, on drugstore shelves, or in online shops. The idea was: Consuming enzymes alongside food helps to break it down before it reaches our gut. If undigested food reaches our intestines, it must be the cause of our painful digestive symptoms… Right?

Not quite.

The theory behind digestive enzymes for IBS is tempting. But the research just isn’t strong enough to support it. Instead, the bulk of the research points us toward a temporary low FODMAP protocol to identify our food triggers, as well as other dietary and lifestyle interventions that we teach in Clairity.

Here’s what we know about over-the-counter enzyme supplements. Prescription digestive enzymes are high dose and carefully designed to survive our stomach acid. Over-the-counter enzymes do not meet the same standards and contain a much lower dose. Additionally, prescription enzymes are highly regulated and over-the-counter enzymes are not at all. In other words, what we find on drugstore shelves are probably not very effective. The only over-the-counter enzymes with some research behind them are lactase (“Lactaid”) for those who are lactose-intolerance, and alpha-galactosidase (“Beano”) for those who are GOS-sensitive. But again, they will not suit everyone and are only effective once you know your triggers and intolerances.

 

Clarity’s tips for digestive enzymes:

  • Always consult your physician or pharmacist before taking any new supplement or medication.
  • Don’t waste your money on generic over-the-counter enzymes! Consider spending your time and energy determining your unique digestive triggers instead.
  • If you know your sensitivities and choose to try Lactaid or Beano (they go by other brand names, too), start small. Increase to a full dose over the course of several days to keep potential symptoms minimal.

 

Fibre supplements

Like digestive enzymes, fibre is incredibly important for good digestion and optimal health.

But, what is it? Fibre is a component of all plant foods that humans cannot digest. It comes in a few different forms: insoluble fibre, soluble fibre, prebiotics and resistant starch. And the benefits of fibre seem endless. A diet high in fibre is shown to:

  • Regulate bowel habits (a big ‘yay’ for this community!)
  • Fuel a healthy and robust gut microbiome
  • Normalize blood sugar and cholesterol
  • Lower our risk for many chronic diseases

 

Fibre is a serious powerhouse when it comes to our health! It makes a lot of sense that people explore fibre supplements as a way to up their intake and reap these awesome rewards.

The main issue with fibre supplements is that different supplements affect each individual differently. And really, we should focus on getting our fibre from food!

Remember, our bodies and our digestive systems are all unique! It’s what makes managing IBS such a challenge and the reason why there is no one-size-fits all diet for digestive issues. A recent review by Monash University found that supplements that contain wheat bran, fructooligosaccharides and galactooligosaccharides (FOS and GOS) may actually worsen symptoms for those with sensitive guts! Ouch! On the other hand, psyllium, linseeds, oats and methylcellulose may be beneficial. But again, it depends on you.

 

Clarity’s tips for fibre supplements:

  • Seriously, we can’t stress this enough… Always consult your physician or pharmacist before taking any new supplement or medication.
  • Prioritize fibre from whole food sources instead of spending money on supplements. Chia seeds, chickpeas and lentils are excellent low FODMAP choices if that’s what you need right now.
  • Depending on your condition and symptoms, increasing fibre intake is not always appropriate. Contact us to learn more about this and how we can help.
  • If you choose to take a fibre supplement, start slow and be mindful of how your body responds.

 

Fish oil

Fish oil is a slightly less trendy supplement with some impressive health claims! Eyesight, heart health, brain development… You name it, fish oil will help. But are these claims legitimate?

Fish oil supplements offer omega-3 fatty acids from fish and seafood, usually in the form of a capsule. DHA and EPA are the most common forms of these long-chain, unsaturated fats and what you’ll likely see on store shelves.

There has been plenty of research conducted on the benefits of omega-3 fats and I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached a consensus on this one. Diets high in omega-3 fats promote good healthStudies have linked high omega-3 fatty acid intake to the prevention of many diseases, including:

  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Depression
  • Asthma

 

Even better, research suggests that omega-3 fats have the potential to reduce the severity of symptoms and progression of certain diseases, such as macular degeneration and rheumatoid arthritis!

What about IBS? Unfortunately, the research linking omega-3 fatty acid intake and digestive disorders is minimal. But, we do know that these fats help reduce inflammation in the body. And we are quite confident in their safety for most individuals (with your doctor’s approval, of course).

Omega-3 supplements are not a remedy for IBS or IBD. But fish oil supplements may help promote good overall health. And, the anti-inflammatory properties of fish oil may help promote good gut health, too.

 

Clairity’s tips for fish oil supplements:

  • Always consult your physician or pharmacist before taking any new supplement or medication.
  • Look to increase your omega-3 fatty acid intake through dietary sources before turning to supplements. Great sources include salmon, mackerel, trout, walnuts, chia seeds and omega-3 enriched eggs.
  • If you choose to purchase a supplement, look for one with EPA and DHA and a minimum 1 gram dosage.

 

Before you go

It’s important that we emphasize that not all supplements are created equal. And even for those backed with research, food sources are often best.

When I was in the thick of my IBS, I felt like I needed to avoid almost every food if I wanted to live symptom-free. And despite my best efforts, my symptoms persisted and worsened until I got clear on my triggers.

I know how that feels and I know how tempting supplements can be. But I promise you, your time and energy are better spent figuring out what’s causing your symptoms rather than seeking over-the-counter remedies. Our program, Clairity, is designed to do just that. We have translated the research into an easy to follow, step-by-step program so you can find relief from uncomfortable digestive symptoms and learn how to live symptom-free for life.

Please reach out if you need help! And be sure to connect with us on Instagram for daily tips, recipes and resources for IBS sufferers.

Wishing you well, always,

Stephanie Clairmont, MHSc, RD
Founder, Lead Coach
Clairity Digestive Program