When it comes to creating a healthy environment in the gut, digestive enzymes and probiotics both play an important role. Although their functions are both very different, they work together to improve digestive function and prevent imbalance in the gut microbiome. These benefits are important for maintaining good gut health, and therefore on overall health in general.
Our gut health is very complex, and something that researchers are still learning more about. Similarly, the relationship between probiotics and digestive enzymes is also complex, and is also something that we are continuing to learn more about.
Probiotics and digestive enzymes are both supplements that can help improve gut health. Some people may wonder whether it’s better to take one over the other, or if it’s safe and effective to take both. In this article, we’ll explore both of these important gut health supplements in depth, how they work, and how they may be able to help you improve your gut health.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are a certain type of friendly bacteria that can offer numerous health benefits when eaten. They are often found in yogurt, kefir, and other fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as in dietary supplements, and sometimes even in beauty products.
Although people often think of bacteria and other microorganisms as harmful “germs,” many are actually very beneficial to the body. In fact, beneficial gut bacteria assist many critical processes in the body, including digestion, nutrient absorption, immune function and neurotransmitter production. Many of the microorganisms in probiotic products are the same as or similar to microorganisms that naturally live in our bodies.
The human body actually contains trillions of microorganisms—outnumbering human cells by a ratio of 10 to 1. Because of their small size, however, microorganisms make up only about 1 to 3 percent of the body's mass, but play a vital role in human health. Most of these microorganisms reside in the gut, and having the right balance of gut bacteria is linked to many health benefits.
The community of microorganisms in the gut is known as the “gut microbiome” or the “gut microbiota.” Having the right balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut is essential for health. Probiotics help to colonize the gut with “good,” or beneficial, bacteria and can help you maintain a healthy balance in your gut microbiome.
What Types of Bacteria are in Probiotics?
Probiotics may contain a variety of microorganisms. The most common are bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Other bacteria may also be used as probiotics, and so may yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii. Different types of probiotics may have different effects. For example, if a specific kind of Lactobacillus helps prevent an illness, that doesn’t necessarily mean that another kind of Lactobacillus or any of the Bifidobacterium probiotics would do the same thing. Therefore, choosing the right type—or types—of probiotics is essential.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
While probiotics are living organisms, digestive enzymes are non-living proteins. These proteins are secreted primarily in the pancreas, and all along the digestive tract in the mouth, stomach, and small intestine. Their primary role is to help break down different foods so that they are small enough for the body to extract and absorb the necessary nutrients. Each type is unique to the role it plays in digestion and the type of macronutrient that it breaks down.
Some of the most common digestive enzymes include:
Amylase: Helps break down carbohydrates.
Protease: Breaks down protein into amino acids.
Lipase: Helps to break down and digest fat.
Some health disorders actually cause insufficient production of digestive enzymes in the body. For example, lactose intolerance is caused by a lack of lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose which is a milk protein. People with this disorder experience extreme discomfort when they ingest anything made with milk because the lactose cannot be broken down.
Some common health conditions and food intolerances associated with decreased digestive enzyme production in the body include:
- Lactose intolerance
- Bean intolerance
- Blockage of the pancreatic duct
- Celiac disease
- Cystic fibrosis
Interestingly, researchers are beginning to find evidence that digestive enzymes may also impact health conditions that are not directly related to the gut. In one recent study, children with autism spectrum disorder showed noticeable benefits when they took a digestive enzyme supplement for three months.
How Do Digestive Enzymes Work in the Body?
Digestive enzymes are essential for nutrient absorption. Without them, macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) aren’t effectively broken down before they reach the small intestine for absorption. As a result, malabsorption occurs and nutrients are wasted. Improperly digested food then draws water into our intestines, causing uncomfortable symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Enzyme deficiency is also commonly associated with heartburn and indigestion.
Malabsorption caused by enzyme deficiency can also lead to vitamin and mineral deficiency. For example, if your body doesn’t make enough lipase, fat can’t be broken down. Then your body is unable to absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Similarly, if you have frequent diarrhea because of improper digestion, you’ll likely lose electrolytes and water-soluble vitamins.
In severe medical cases, a person may require prescription enzyme replacement therapy. However, many digestive issues can be improved with a simple digestive enzyme supplement. Taking lactase, for example, can improve digestion for those with lactose intolerance since people with this condition don’t make enough lactase naturally.
Probiotics vs Digestive Enzymes
Some people wonder if they can take probiotics and digestive enzymes together, or if they need to be taken separately. The truth is, they can not only be taken together, but it is actually an ideal scenario to take them together. This is because they both play very different, but also very supportive roles in improving gut health.
Probiotics help to create a healthy gut microbiome that protects the digestive system from harmful gut bacteria and creates a balanced environment for digestion. Digestive enzymes improve the actual process of digestion to ensure that your food is properly broken down and absorbed. Together, probiotics and digestive enzymes help you get the most nutrition out of the food you eat while supporting healthy digestion.
Plus, both supplements are considered safe to take in most cases. Since each type has a different function, there is no risk for how the two interact if you take them together. Taking both is most likely to actually offer the most benefit.
Are Digestive Enzymes or Probiotics Better for Digestion?
People often wonder when it comes to enzymes vs probiotics which is better for digestion. The answer to this isn’t so simple, as gut health is complex, and this will depend on your body and your goals. Your body does not make probiotics, so taking a probiotic supplement has potential digestive benefits for everyone. Taking probiotics can improve symptoms if you experience issues with digestion, but many people prefer to take probiotics on a preventative and supportive basis.
If you have food allergies or symptoms that suggest malabsorption, then a potential lack of digestive enzymes is worth considering. A good digestive enzyme supplement could noticeably improve your digestion and gut health.
Probiotics help to build an overall better environment of bacteria in the gut, which has many benefits for digestive health. Digestive enzymes help to improve your body’s ability to break down and absorb food. So, they each have their role in improving digestion and gut health.
Considerations for Probiotic Supplements
Adding a probiotic supplement to your wellness routine can support optimal digestion and bowel function, as well as promote overall health. The more researchers understand about the connection between gut health and the immune system, as well as between gut health and mental wellbeing, the more probiotics are encouraged as an important daily health supplement.
When choosing a probiotic supplement, there are some things to consider. It is ideal to choose a multi-strain probiotic that contains a diverse range of different beneficial bacteria. Additionally, it is important to take a probiotic with a good number of culture forming units (CFUs). This may differ a bit depending on your individual gut health and goals, but taking a supplement that provides between 20 and 50 billion CFUs is the typical recommendation.
Finally, consider timing. The best time to take probiotics is typically on an empty stomach, ideally 30 minutes to an hour before a meal. Digestive enzymes, on the other hand, function best when taken with meals.
Considerations for Digestive Enzyme Supplements
When looking for a good digestive enzyme supplement, make sure that it contains a diverse profile of important enzymes. The most important to look out for are:
Other enzymes in the enzyme supplement can be very helpful too, but these five are likely to play the biggest role in supporting and improving digestion.
If you want to simply support healthy digestion, without or in addition to a digestive supplement, you can try to incorporate natural sources of digestive enzymes in your diet. Foods with natural digestive enzymes include:
It is important to be aware that digestive enzymes can cause possible mild side effects. These are rare, and usually occur from taking high doses of enzymes, but some potential side effects include stomach pain, nausea and vomiting.
Digestive enzymes and probiotics are both excellent gut health supplements that can improve digestion and overall gastrointestinal health. Although they work well together, they benefit the body in different ways.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that help to build a good environment in your gut microbiome, and therefore support overall gut health. Digestive enzymes are proteins that help to break down food and may speed up and improve digestion.
It is safe to take digestive enzymes and probiotics together. In fact, some studies suggest that probiotics enhance the outcome of enzyme supplementation, and recommend taking them together for the best gut health benefits.
One is not necessarily better than the other, as this depends on your body and your needs and goals. However, both probiotics and digestive enzymes are important gut health supplements that nearly everyone can benefit from taking.