There’s much confusion as to what digestive enzymes and probiotics are, since both play key roles in gut and digestive health. People ask all the time: Should I be taking probiotics or enzymes? If I take one, do I need the other? These questions are understandable! To answer these questions, we must first understand the basics of what each is. Let’s take a look.
Digestive Enzymes 101
Digestive enzymes are non-living, protein-based molecules made and secreted by the GI tract. They are designed to break down the proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids in the foods we eat, so that we can absorb and use the nutrients they contain for the many thousands of biological tasks the body must carry out everyday to be healthy and functional.(1) The various kinds of proteases break down proteins into amino acids; amylase, lactase and alpha-galactosidase break down complex carbohydrates (starches and complex sugars) into glucose; lipases break down fats into fatty acids and monoglycerides.
Masters of efficiency and execution, digestive enzymes are ‘one-trick-ponies’ in that they do a very specific job of making or breaking their ‘assigned’ molecules both extremely well and extremely fast. For example, a protease enzyme breaks a protein in a specific place in its chain as rapidly as one million times per second. They mean business!
Supplementation with digestive enzymes make sense for several reasons:
- In nature, enzymes present in fresh, raw foods and do up to 60% of the digesting for us, before the food moves into the bottom of our stomach for further digestion. Industrial processing and cooking foods destroys (denatures) all in-food enzymes, rendering them non-function.(3)
- Supplementary enzymes help ensure all foods are completely broken down into their absorbable nutrients, including when we overeat. They keep digestion strong, freeing your immune system to do other important jobs: digest virus, microbe, yeast, and cell debris, break down inflammatory and autoimmune proteins, and repair cells and tissues.
- They help relieve food intolerances and sensitivities, and allergy symptoms. This includes an estimated 75 percent of the world’s adults who deal with some degree of lactose intolerance (hypolactasia) from lowered lactase production after weaning.(4)
- They can be used to help manage some of the digestive symptoms related to more serious conditions like celiac disease and cystic fibrosis.(1)(2)
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that are present in a healthy GI tract and that make up part of the intestinal microbiome (the total of all the different kinds of microbes within the gut). These living organisms normally maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with the host, bringing with them far-reaching metabolic, immunological, nutritional, and psychological benefits.(5)
Masters of protection and balance, probiotics keep harmful, intestinal microorganisms in check. In addition, they help with digestion; manufacture some vitamins (B and K) and short chain fatty acids; stimulate protective ‘mucin’ secretion in the lining of the gut; and break down cholesterol and toxins in our bowel.
Probiotic supplements are considered a safe therapy and play a role in health because they:
- Replace the probiotics that are naturally present on fresh, raw foods but are destroyed by industrial processing and cooking.
- Compensate for poor dietary and lifestyle choices.
- Serve as a way to improve microbial balance in the intestinal tract and restore a baseline microbial community following disruptive events (dysbiosis) such as infection or taking antibiotics.(6)
- Support immune function.
Among hundreds of different kinds of microbes naturally present in the gut, research shows that two types of probiotics known as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria confer the most benefits.(7)
Digestive Enzymes vs Probiotics: So, what’s the same?
- Both are destroyed by heat: If you empty the capsules into foods, be sure to add them to foods that are cool enough to eat!
- Both do their work inside the digestive tract.
- Both improve gut function, but in different ways.
- Both support immune function.
And, what’s different?
- Enzymes are active but non-living molecules; probiotics are living organisms/bacteria.
- Enzymes expertly split foods into absorbable nutrients, but that’s all they do; human-adapted probiotics live in the gut for up to two weeks, eat, multiply, and fight other microbes.
- Enzymes come from raw foods, supplements, and the body’s own production; probiotics cannot be made by the body. They only come from raw foods, outside contact, or supplements.
- Enzyme molecules are much smaller than probiotic cells: you can fit 100 million times more enzymes into the same sized capsule. It’s one of the reasons enzymes are so efficient.
- Enzymes do not require refrigeration; probiotics do.
The Bottom Line: Enzymes break down foods into smaller nutrients that the body can then use. Probiotics protect the digestive tract. A diminished number of probiotics in the gut and poorly digested foods both place a burden on the body that it must then work harder to fix. Understanding the different ways that digestive enzymes and probiotics work, gives us a much better chance to effectively address digestive health. If you want the best of health, both of these different functions need support.