Probiotics vs Digestive Enzymes: What’s Right for You?

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    Digestive enzymes and probiotics are both necessary for the health of your digestive system. Let’s take a look at how they work to see what’s right for you.

    What Are Probiotics?

    Probiotics are the superstar helpers in your gut. They are living microorganisms (mostly bacteria and yeasts) that aid your own digestion. The term gut microbiome refers to the total collection of microorganisms throughout your digestive tract.

    The term “probiotic” technically refers to microbes that are known to support the gut. These are different from unhealthy bacteria that can negatively impact gut health. So probiotic supplements should contain types of healthy beneficial bacteria. Consuming probiotics can help balance the population of bacteria and other microbes in the gut, improve bowel movement regularity, and manage potential side effects of antibiotic use.

    The bacteria that live in the gut can help break down food components like fibers through a process called fermentation. Whereas our own digestive processes can’t digest fibers, gut bacteria can break these down into nutrients that, in turn, fuel the cells of the gut lining.

    What Are Digestive enzymes?

    Digestive enzymes are natural compounds that help break down food into more easily absorbable pieces so that the body can obtain the nutrients it needs. These enzymes are produced in several areas along the digestive tract, including the mouth, stomach, small intestines, and the pancreas. Pancreatic enzymes help break down the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbs. Pepsin and peptidase break down proteins, lipases break down fats, and amylases break down carbohydrates. Enzymes produced from the cells along the small intestine are called brush border enzymes. These help break down additional components of food, such as maltose and oligosaccharides.

    Ultimately, we need adequate amounts of digestive enzymes, especially the pancreatic and brush border types, for a well-functioning digestive system. While digestive enzymes are naturally made in the body, they can also be taken as supplements to aid digestion when a boost is needed.

    How are digestive enzymes and probiotics similar?

    Digestive enzymes and probiotics both play an important role in the health of your digestive system. Moreover, they’re both available in supplement form, can be found in food, and are used to support gut health.

    Role in digestion

    While probiotics and digestive enzymes do work differently in the process of digestion, they also work similarly and can even help and enhance each other.

    While digestive enzymes provide the bulk of digestive capacity in the gut, probiotics can boost this further. Probiotics can aid in the breakdown of certain complex food components which can enhance nutrient absorption, enhance the production of digestive enzymes, and even produce certain digestive enzymes. For example, a meta-analysis showed that probiotic supplementation can alleviate common symptoms associated with lactose intolerance including temporary abdominal discomfort and gas. This benefit stems from certain probiotic bacteria, especially lactobacillus types, that can produce the lactase enzyme needed to break down lactose. This can greatly support those who no longer naturally produce enough lactase enzymes in adulthood to potentially allow them to tolerate dairy.

    Importance for gut health

    Digestive enzymes and probiotics function in a complementary way. Think of it like this: Probiotics affect the environment of your digestive system, while digestive enzymes support the actual process of digestion. Both are needed for a balanced microbiome for optimal health.

    Probiotics can exert their effects on the microbiome directly by providing bacteria to balance out the ratios of bacteria in the gut and even prevent unhealthy bacteria from growing. Digestive enzymes support efficient digestion so that food in the digestive tract only remains for the right amount of time to feed gut bacteria in moderation. They also promote adequate nutrient absorption, and adequate nutrient levels in the body are needed for a well-functioning gut including the gut immune system.

    What are the key differences between digestive enzymes and probiotics?

    As you’ve read so far, probiotics and digestive enzymes have a lot of similarities and both promote a healthy gut. But they also have enough key differences that they can’t be used interchangeably, as we’ll discuss. When discussing the supplemental forms of probiotics and digestive enzymes, there is an important difference in how to store your supplements. You probably won’t be storing them together. Digestive enzyme supplements don’t need to be refrigerated, and some probiotic supplements do.

    Origin and nature

    Probiotics are living microorganisms that live not only in the gut microbiome but also in all microbiomes of the body, including the skin, urinary tract, lungs, and vagina. So as you can see, probiotics go beyond just supporting digestion. We absorb probiotics at birth, while passing through the birth canal, and then through a variety of foods, such as certain types of fermented dairy, naturally rich in probiotics.

    Digestive enzymes, on the other hand, aren’t living and they aren’t microorganisms. They are secreted in your stomach, mouth, small intestine, and most of all, in your pancreas to help you break down the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in the food you eat, and thus allow your body to absorb nutrients.

    Functions in the body

    Probiotics contribute to a strong immune response by influencing immune cell activity and producing substances that promote balanced Th1, Th2, Th17, and Treg cells for optimal immune function. Certain strains of probiotics can even produce vitamins like B K2, which are both important for overall health. Amongst many other benefits, probiotics can also promote a healthy metabolism and even support healthy weight management.

    Digestive enzymes mainly function to help the body break down foods so that nutrients can be absorbed into the body.

    Impact on nutrient absorption

    Both help with nutrient absorption but in different ways. Probiotics are necessary for maintaining the health of the cells lining the intestines so that the nutrients released by digestive enzymes can actually get absorbed through those cells into the bloodstream and used throughout the body. The cells of the intestinal lining are just one cell layer thick and act as the gatekeepers from the digestive tract to the blood. Probiotic supplementation has also been shown in various studies to enhance micronutrient absorption, especially vitamin B12, calcium, folate, iron and zinc.

    Which is better: digestive enzymes or probiotics?

    You may wonder which is better for you – digestive enzymes or probiotics. Well, that entirely depends on your particular health goals. Both are beneficial, and your body needs both.

    Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics for immune system

    The body needs many nutrients to maintain a healthy immune system. Digestive enzymes benefit the immune system indirectly by helping get the proper nutrients from your food into your body; if your body is getting enough of the nutrients it needs, your immune system will function more effectively.

    Probiotics, however, have a much more direct impact on the immune system. They contribute to a strong immune response by influencing immune cell activity and producing substances that promote optimal immune function. In fact, over 70% of the body’s immune system actually resides in the gut in the intestinal lining, also called the gut mucosa. This means that the microbiome plays a significant role in promoting the immune system.

    Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics for bloating

    Bloating can be caused by a number of factors, including the menstrual cycle, eating too quickly, sensitivity to certain foods, and stress. Sometimes it can also be caused by underlying gastrointestinal problems, including insufficient digestive enzymes and imbalances in the gut microbiome. That’s where digestive enzymes and probiotics come into play.

    Taking supplemental digestive enzymes can help alleviate bloating by supporting the breakdown of the foods you eat. This may be especially helpful in those who experience stress, which can reduce natural production of digestive enzymes in the body, as well as those who may experience damage to the gut lining (also referred to as ‘Leaky gut’) where brush border enzymes are produced.

    A study that looked at the effects of probiotics on abdominal bloating found that subjects who took the probiotics had better outcomes than those who took the placebo. Probiotics can even promote better enzyme function in the digestive system, which in turn has a positive impact on metabolism, appetite, and bowel movements.

    Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics for digestion

    When it comes to digestion, a so-called “digestive enzyme” can provide immediate support (as the name would suggest). Probiotics are beneficial for digestion, too, in that they can support the creation of certain enzymes.

    It’s important to take a digestive enzyme supplement right before meals; this will ensure that they take effect at the right time as your food is making its way to your stomach and small intestine. One study looked at the impact of lipase supplementation right before eating a high-fat meal, and found that participants who took the supplement had much less gastrointestinal discomfort than the placebo group did. Furthermore, the benefits of the supplement became more apparent over time, with the lipase-supplemented group having fewer symptoms than the placebo group by 30 minutes after supplementation.

    Another study found that supplementing with the alpha-galactosidase enzyme, a type of brush border enzyme, managed gassiness in subjects more efficiently compared to those in the placebo group.

    Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics for different age groups

    Enzyme production can decrease with age and stress. Getting a boost in digestion by supplementing with digestive enzymes may help those make up for the natural decline in production with age, as well as during times of stress. On the other hand, natural production of digestive enzymes is low in infancy but increases into adolescence. That’s why breast milk contains natural digestive enzymes like lipase and amylase to help break down the milk while the baby’s own enzyme production is low.

    Probiotics can offer advantages across various age groups. In infants and young children, probiotics can support a healthy gut microbiome which can also promote healthy immune and digestive function. For instance, this study showed that both Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and saccharomyces boulardii can both help manage antibiotic related diarrhea in children.

    Throughout adolescence, use of topical probiotics (Streptococcus thermophiles and salivarius) may even aid in mitigating acne associated with hormone fluctuations by supporting the skin barrier. For adults, probiotics continue to support the gut and overall health for all the reasons we’ve mentioned here In older adults, certain probiotics (Bifidobacterium bifidum BGN4 and Bifidobacterium longum BORI for 12 weeks) may reduce the impact of age-related changes to the balance in the gut microbiome and may even support cognitive function. For all age groups, probiotics can be particularly useful when taking antibiotics, as antibiotics attack our stores of probiotic bacteria.

    Can you take digestive enzymes and probiotics together?

    You can take digestive enzymes and probiotics together. Indeed, taking them together can ensure you get the best of both worlds!

    Taking probiotics can help create a healthy environment for your digestive system, even stimulating the creation of helpful enzymes. Taking digestive enzyme supplements can help improve your body’s process of digestion, breaking down food and allowing your body to absorb the nutrients it needs to function. Taking them together can help promote the health of your gut and the effectiveness of your digestive processes – and cut down on frustrating symptoms while you’re at it. There’s no evidence to suggest that probiotics and digestive enzymes will interact negatively in your system.

    What are some signs that you might benefit from probiotics or digestive enzymes?

    Symptoms of indigestion, bloating, and bowel movement pattern changes are all signs and symptoms that you may benefit from probiotics and/or digestive enzymes. Current or recent antibiotic use is a great reason to take a probiotic; just make sure you take antibiotics and probiotics at least 2 hours apart. If taking these supplements does not help or aggravates your symptoms, you should talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do to support your gut health.

    Some people may even benefit from incorporating prebiotics – plant fibers that help healthy bacteria grow – for their synergistic effects on probiotics. Care/of offers all three. Our high quality digestive enzymes are made with a blend of enzymes to help break down dairy, gluten, fiber, and more. Our probiotic blend can help naturally regulate your digestive system. And our prebiotics ease bloating and allow probiotics to work more effectively.

    Where to find probiotics and digestive enzymes

    Sources of probiotics

    Probiotics are naturally present in fermented foods including yogurt, kefir, kimchi, miso, raw sauerkraut, kombucha, and lacto-fermented vegetables.

    And of course, probiotics also come in the convenient form as supplements. Care/of’s Probiotic Blend supplement, as well as many other supplements, come in convenient daily packs to make getting your daily dose of probiotics a breeze. Many supplement forms of probiotics can often provide more concentrated doses of probiotics than food alone.

    Sources of digestive enzymes

    You can get some supplemental digestive enzymes through certain foods, particularly fruits such as papaya, which contain the enzyme papain, kiwi, and pineapple, which contains the enzyme bromelain.

    Supplement forms of digestive enzymes may include the pancreatic enzymes (pepsin and other proteases, lipases, and amylases) and/or brush border enzymes that further aid food breakdown. Care/of’s Digestive Enzyme supplement is also called “The Meal Buddy” because it contains both pancreatic and brush border enzymes to provide full digestive support to help your body break down food and absorb nutrients.

    The bottom line

    In the complex realm of gut health, probiotics and digestive enzymes play pivotal roles. Probiotics provide their benefits to a thriving gut microbiome and promote various aspects of well-being including the immune system. Digestive enzymes do their main job of breaking down food into nutrients to be absorbed and used in the body. Together, probiotics and digestive enzymes provide a synergistic benefit to gut health and digestion. Probiotics foster a healthy gut environment, while digestive enzymes provide the essential tools for nutrient extraction. Depending on your digestion needs, you may benefit from one or the other or both and can seek a boost in either through food and supplementation.

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    Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
    Medical Content Manager
    Dr. Montrond-Correia is a licensed naturopathic physician and a certified nutrition specialist (CNS). She holds degrees from University of Bridgeport, Georgetown University, and University of Saint Joseph, and supplemented her education with internships in the health and wellness space. She's focused on research, herbal medicine, nutrigenomics, and integrative and functional medicine. She makes time for exercise, artistic activities, and enjoying delicious food.
    Victoria Peck-Gray, RD
    Freelance Contributor
    Victoria is a registered dietitian and functional nutritionist who helps people with resistant weight loss and PCOS transform their metabolic health and lose weight through a functional nutrition and lifestyle approach that addresses root causes. She is owner of her private practice, Wonderfully Made Nutrition and also leads her group metabolic coaching program for women called The 4 Method.