Probiotics and digestive enzymes are increasingly popular natural products shown to support digestive health, but are digestive enzymes the same as probiotics? In short, no. There is, however, some overlap between the potential health benefits of these natural supplements, so let’s dig into the longer, more interesting answer to this question.
What are digestive enzymes?
The body produces digestive enzymes as a normal part of the digestive process. These enzymes include amylases which help break down starches and carbohydrates, lipase to help break down dietary fats, and proteases to help break down proteins in food. Other enzymes, called proteolytic enzymes, also help break down proteins. They are also included in broad-spectrum digestive enzyme formulas in the form of bromelain and papain derived from pineapple and papaya.
Digestive enzymes are essential for good health as they help break down food to release energy and nutrients. This process starts even before we put food in our mouths, as we salivate at the anticipation of food! Saliva contains amylase, which gets mixed with food as we chew, thus beginning the digestive process. After swallowing, digestion continues with the help of stomach acid and enzymes. Once food enters the intestines, digestive enzymes and bile acids produced by the pancreas and liver help complete the digestive process.
By supporting proper digestion, enzymes help the body cleanse the colon and carry out normal detoxification processes. In contrast, a lack of digestive enzymes can result in incomplete digestion, which has a range of potential negative effects on health.
Not only does incomplete digestion mean that we miss out on the nutrients and energy in food, undigested food may begin to putrefy in the gut. This can lead to the overgrowth of undesirable bacteria, and the production of toxic metabolites that trigger symptoms such as stomach cramps and pain, flatulence, gas, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and even skin problems and reduced energy. Incomplete digestion also means that larger proteins persist, which increases the potential for food allergies and sensitivities.
What are probiotics?
The word probiotic is derived from the words “pro” meaning “for” and “bio” meaning “life”, which reflects the importance of probiotics for good health. Probiotics include bacteria and other organisms, such as the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii, which demonstrated beneficial effects on digestive health and other aspects of health.
The human gut contains billions of bacteria, with Lactobacillus species predominant in the small intestine and bifidobacteria species as the main species in the large intestine. These bacteria help support the intestinal barrier, normal inflammatory processes, nutrient synthesis, and immune function.
Probiotics and digestion
Some probiotics also help with digestion, which may be where they get confused with digestive enzymes. Lactobacillus species, for instance, can help increase the production of amylase, the key enzyme for carbohydrate digestion (Jin et al., 2000), while Lactobacillus casei produces the enzyme lactase which is necessary to digest lactose, the sugar in milk.
By supporting the digestion of lactose and other carbohydrates, probiotics can help prevent and reduce undesirable gastrointestinal consequences of lactose intolerance, which include diarrhea, bad breath, gas, and nausea (Ruchkina et al., 2013). Probiotics may also affect digestion in other ways, such as by helping to bind cholesterol to bile acids which are then excreted (St-Onge et al., 2000).
So, while probiotics are not digestive enzymes per se, they do support digestion. And, while digestive enzymes have a very specific mechanism of action, they also support the bacterial balance in the gut by reducing the likelihood of putrefaction and the overgrowth of undesirable organisms.
Which is best: Probiotics or digestive enzymes?
If you’re experiencing tummy troubles, it may be confusing to decide between probiotics and digestive enzymes. There’s no strict guidelines on which is best: probiotics or digestive enzymes for constipation, or probiotics or digestive enzymes for gas. The smart choice depends on the root cause of the digestive troubles. In some cases, a combination of probiotics and digestive enzymes may be best to support overall gastrointestinal health.
However, if a specific food is causing difficulties, digestive enzymes are likely to offer more targeted relief and can help maintain bacterial balance to reduce the likelihood of more systemic problems. Conversely, if digestive issues arise after antibiotic treatment or infection, probiotics are the preferred choice to help get your gut back on track.
In short, digestive enzymes and probiotics are allies in the pursuit of tip-top gastrointestinal health!
Jin, L.Z., Ho, Y.W., Abdullah, N. & Jalaludin, S. (2000). Digestive and bacterial enzyme activities in broilers fed diets supplemented with Lactobacillus cultures. Poult Sci, 79(6), 886-91.
Ruchkina, I.N., Fadeeva, N.A., Parfenov, A.I., et al. (2013). The role of small bowel microflora in the development of secondary lactase deficiency and the possibilities of its treatment with probiotics [Article in Russian]. Ter Arkh, 85(2), 21-6.
St-Onge, M.P., Farnworth, E.R. & Jones, P.J. (2000). Consumption of fermented and nonfermented dairy products: effects on cholesterol concentrations and metabolism. Am J Clin Nutr, 71, 674-81.