The digestive system can be confusing. Probiotics vs digestive enzymes – which is right for your symptoms? What do these things do anyway?
If your head is spinning with all the digestive remedies out there, you are in the right place! In this article we’ll get to the bottom of probiotics and digestive enzymes, and answer all your questions.
Let’s dive in and learn more.
The short and sweet difference between probiotics and digestive enzymes
Digestive enzymes are proteins that are produced in your body. They are not alive. Probiotics are live organisms that come from outside your body.
You make digestive enzymes in your saliva, stomach and small intestine. They begin the process of breaking down foods into a form where they can be absorbed. When you take digestive enzymes, you are replacing or supplementing something that is naturally produced by your body.
Probiotics are live microbial organisms that can take up residence in your gut. Your body does not produce probiotics. They come from outside, and are in fact a whole separate life form.
Let’s learn more about both of these substances.
What are probiotics?
The official definition of probiotics is live microorganisms, that when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host (1). So in plain English, these are bacteria and other microbes that will benefit your health when you take a large enough amount.
How do probiotics benefit your health? This depends on the strain that you take. There are thousands of strains out there, and an enormous amount of research. A search for peer-reviewed research articles on human probiotics returns over 22,000 results.
In addition, you can get probiotics from supplements or from food. Fermented and cultured foods all contain a variety of different probiotics. If you want to really target a particular strain, or get a much larger dose, there are plenty of supplements available.
How do I know if I need probiotics?
One way to truly know if you need a probiotic supplement is to do a stool test. This will tell you how many different types of microbes are already living in your gut, so that you can make an informed decision whether or not you need to add more.
That being said, nearly everyone benefits from eating foods that contain probiotics. A microbiome that hosts lots of different varieties of microbes is protective against several chronic diseases. It is good for your overall health (2).
What is the best time to take probiotics?
If you are considering a probiotic supplement, the best thing to do is follow the instructions that come with the product. Sometimes it is best to take them with a meal, and sometimes on an empty stomach. It depends on how the product is made. That is why different products all seem to give different instructions.
What if there are no instructions on when to take probiotics? Some research shows that probiotics survive their trip through your digestive system better when you take them with a meal, or 30 minutes before a meal (3).
Thirty minutes after a meal, the probiotics didn’t fare so well. The same study also found that more probiotics survived when they were eaten with a meal that contained some fats (3).
Why did these bacteria do better with food? It turns out that the stomach contents are more acidic when there is no food in your stomach. Food dilutes stomach acid so that it is less acidic. The bacteria are more likely to survive.
The bacteria in this study weren’t protected at all from stomach acid or bile. The good news is that many companies that make these supplements do coat them with substances that protect them from stomach acid. In these cases, it is not as important when you take the pills.
Who should not take probiotics?
Not all probiotics are right for everyone, and there are some who should not be consuming live bacteria at all. Certain immunosuppressive medications warn against taking probiotics, because they can overwhelm a dampened immune system in your gut.
If you already have a bacterial overgrowth such as SIBO, it might not be a good idea to introduce even more bacteria into your digestive system. Read more about probiotics for SIBO.
Check with your doctor or nutritionist to see if probiotics are right for you, and especially which strain is best for your particular health issues.
What are the types of probiotic supplements?
Seven main genera of probiotics are used in probiotic supplements. These are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus. Each genus is further classified into species, sometimes subspecies, and then an identifier using letters and numbers (4).
Lactobacillus genus alone has over 200 different species of bacteria, so you can see the numbers quickly add up to a lot of different possibilities for supplements (5).
Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the most heavily researched probiotic strains. These are the ones you are most likely to find in probiotic formulas.
What’s the best probiotic for me?
Choose a probiotic based on your own health and digestive system. Specific strains that have been studied to treat atopic dermatitis, different forms of diarrhea, constipation, IBS, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s Disease, high cholesterol, histamine intolerance, mental health disorders, and more (4).
If you are already in good health and just want to give your microbiome some extra help, try a broad spectrum formula with strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium and see how you feel.
What are digestive enzymes?
Your body produces proteins called digestive enzymes. These proteins break your foods down into smaller particles. Now you can absorb the nutrients into your bloodstream.
Enzymes take the proteins you eat apart into amino acids. They convert carbohydrates into simple sugars. They break down fats to free fatty acids. All of these processes require energy that comes from digestive enzymes.
How do I know if I need digestive enzyme supplements?
Bloating, excessive gas and abdominal pain are all signs that you are not digesting and absorbing foods properly.
A common example of poor digestion is lactose intolerance. Over half the world’s population does not produce the enzyme that breaks down lactose, the sugar in milk. These people cannot absorb lactose in their digestive tract.
Bacteria in the gut begin to consume the lactose, and produce a lot of gas. Now they have bloating and abdominal pain. The sugar also draws water into the gut, which can cause diarrhea.
What is the best time to take digestive enzymes?
The best time to take a digestive enzyme supplement is right when you are eating the foods that need to be digested. Take them along with a meal so that they are on the spot to help break down those foods.
Who should not take digestive enzymes?
Digestive enzyme supplementation is safe for MOST people. You body already produces these substances naturally. However, always check with your doctor to make sure they are ok for YOUR particular health conditions and medications.
You might be sensitive to one of the inactive ingredients that is added to an enzyme supplement. Read the ingredients, and make sure you are using a trustworthy brand.
There are many different types of digestive enzymes out there. Get some professional advice to make sure you choose the right one for you. If you take an enzyme that digests lactose, but your real problem is that you can’t break down proteins, you are not going to have any relief.
Are digestive enzymes the same as HCL?
HCL, or hydrochloric acid, is not the same thing as digestive enzymes. Your stomach produces this super strong acid. It plays a different role in digestion. Low stomach acid might have similar symptoms to low digestive enzymes. It is best to get professional advice on whether you need more HCL.
HCL is not as safe as digestive enzymes. If you have any kind of inflammatory condition in your gut, supplementing with HCL can make it worse.
What are the types of digestive enzymes?
First of all, you can recognize an enzyme because its name always ends in ase.
The three main categories of digestive enzymes are amylase, protease and lipase.
Amylase breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars. Protease breaks down proteins into amino acids. Lipase is responsible for breaking down fats.
Disaccharidases break down sugars into their smallest unit of one molecule. Some examples are sucrase, lactase and maltase.
Some of the proteases that work on proteins are trypsin, chymotrypsin, elastase, and the carboxypeptidases.
Digestive enzyme formulas sometimes use enzymes that aren’t naturally produced in your body. One example is cellulase, which breaks down the plant fiber cellulose. We don’t produce cellulase, and this is why we can’t digest grass. However it might be added to a supplement to support digestion of plant fibers.
What’s the best digestive enzyme for me?
Your best digestive enzyme depends on your own unique digestive system. It is the enzyme that you are not producing efficiently in your gut. It might be something that breaks down proteins, fats or a specific type of carbohydrate.
You can learn which enzymes you need when you figure out the foods that cause your symptoms. A food and symptom journal might make this more clear. A stool test can also give you a lot of information about what is going on in your digestive tract.
Can you take probiotics and digestive enzymes together?
You can absolutely take probiotics and digestive enzymes together. They work differently to support your digestive health, and normally should not interfere with each other.
Probiotics or digestive enzymes for bloating?
Bloating usually means you have too much bacteria in the upper part of your digestive tract. This is more often a job for digestive enzymes, which can help to break down the foods that are feeding those bacteria.
Final Thoughts on Probiotics vs Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes are proteins that break down the foods you eat so that they can be absorbed into your body. You produce digestive enzymes inside your body.
Probiotics are live organisms that you consume. They take up residence in your gut (or just pass through) and give you some kind of health benefit.
It is a personal decision whether to take probiotics or digestive enzymes, and also what kind to take. This depends on your unique health situation and physical characteristics.
If you have symptoms that point to poor digestion, digestive enzymes may help. Probiotics are good for overall gut health. They can be targeted to treat specific health conditions.
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