Gut health is complex and probiotics and digestive enzymes are two important components of it. If you’re wondering how the two differ, this article will explain the differences in function and uses of probiotics and digestive enzymes.
There are a plethora of supplements available in the market today — for both digestive enzymes and probiotics. So it’s important to understand what you’re putting in your body and how it will benefit you (if at all).
What are digestive enzymes?
An enzyme is any molecule that speeds up a chemical reaction. All enzymes are proteins, and your body makes hundreds of enzymes that regulate different chemical reactions important for a healthy life. Digestive enzymes are molecules that help the body absorb nutrients from food.
The food you eat contains large molecules like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. These molecules are too large to pass through the cells of your gut and enter the bloodstream. Without digestive enzymes, all nutrients in the food would simply pass out of the body via stool and you’ll end up with malnutrition.
Luckily, the body has a specific digestive enzyme for each major nutrient present in the diet, including carbs, proteins, and fats. These enzymes are complementary in shape to the nutrients you eat and break these nutrients down into smaller molecules.
Proteins are broken down into amino acids by the enzyme protease. Similarly, multiple enzymes break down carbs into glucose molecules, and fat is broken down into smaller parts by the enzyme lipase.
These smaller molecules are small enough to pass through gut cells and enter your bloodstream, where they are used in a wide range of processes to keep you alive.
In simple terms, digestive enzymes take nutrients present in the food and break them down into smaller pieces so they can cross the gut cells easily.
Our DNA makes sure the body makes all digestive enzymes needed for healthy digestion. However, in some people, one or two enzymes may be missing. This leads to impaired absorption of nutrients and depending on which nutrient fails to get absorbed, people can experience a range of symptoms.
This is where digestive enzyme supplements come in. By supplementing the body with the missing enzyme, enzyme supplements can reverse uncomfortable digestive symptoms and improve nutrient absorption.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are bacteria that increase the number of the good bacteria in the gut.
Your gut naturally has a large colony of bacteria, which is called the gut microbiome. In addition to keeping the gut healthy, a healthy gut microbiome has been linked to reduced mental illnesses, improved immune system, and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Probiotic supplements contain live bacteria, and their goal is to increase the number of healthy bacteria in the gut and reduce the number of bad bacteria. This restores the gut microbiome balance, which is essential for a healthy digestive system.
Unlike digestive enzymes, probiotics don’t act on food molecules. However, some probiotics may contain bacteria that produce digestive enzymes, and these probiotics may be helpful for treating patients who naturally lack a digestive enzyme.
Probiotics may also contain bacteria that produce vitamins (like vitamins B9 and K) and this is another way they differ from enzymes, which don’t have an effect on vitamin metabolism.
There’s also a very important similarity between probiotics and digestive enzymes. Both are available in the market as supplements (and not drugs), which means neither is tightly regulated by the FDA.
What this means for you is that supplement manufacturers can easily make unfounded, false claims about their products and you should always consult an expert before starting these supplements.
It also means that some companies might not make high-quality products. While low-quality supplements are usually safe, they are ineffective, which means your money goes to waste. This is why it’s important to always purchase your supplements from a reliable company.
With that being said, let’s take a look at when you should use a probiotic and when a digestive enzyme.
Probiotics vs Digestive Enzymes — When to Take What?
Since probiotics and digestive enzymes have different structures and functions, they are used for different purposes.
Generally, probiotic supplements are thought to provide benefits that extend beyond the digestive system while enzyme supplements are mainly used to treat digestive symptoms.
Lactose and gluten intolerances are two conditions that can be improved using digestive enzymes.
Lactose is a sugar found in milk (and other dairy products), and it’s broken down by the enzyme lactase in the body. People who lack lactase can experience abdominal discomfort, pain, and bloating after consuming dairy.
In these people, a lactase supplement can be used to improve tolerance to dairy products.
Similarly, people who are intolerant to gluten can experience discomfort after eating foods like wheat, rye, and barley. In these patients, an enzyme supplement containing dipeptidyl peptidase IV may be helpful.
Many patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can also benefit from digestive enzymes. These patients are often intolerant to lactose and sugars called FODMAPs, which can be tackled using lactase and FODMAP digestive enzymes, respectively.
Probiotics have been associated with a wide range of health benefits, including:
● Reducing antibiotic-associated diarrhea, which occurs when antibiotics kill good gut bacteria, allowing bad bacteria to proliferate in the process.
● Reducing cholesterol absorption from the gut — specifically, LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is also called bad cholesterol, so probiotics reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering its level.
● Improving the symptoms of ulcerative colitis, which is long-term, inflammatory disorder of the gut.
● Helping with IBS.
● Reducing the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a severe gut condition seen in premature babies.
● Helping you lose weight by inhibiting cholesterol absorption and inducing a feeling of satiety for longer periods.
● Strengthening your immune system — particularly the immune system of the gut. They do this by inducing the production of IgA, which is a major immune molecule of the gut.
Finally, you should know that different strains of probiotics have been associated with different benefits. So before starting a probiotic supplement, you should be clear about why you’re taking it and what strain you need!
Casa de Sante low FODMAP certified probiotic and prebiotic combo and digestive enzymes are quality supplements that will help with IBS and SIBO.
Medically reviewed by Onikepe Adegbola, MD PhD.