Digestive Enzymes vs Probiotics: What’s The Difference?

Are you trying to decide whether to take digestive enzymes or probiotics?

If you’re experiencing symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, you could benefit from taking one (or both) of these supplements. But which one?

Read below to discover the differences between digestive enzymes and probiotics, as well as who can benefit from taking them.

What are Digestive Enzymes?

Digestive enzymes are proteins that are naturally produced by the body. They help break the chemical bonds within food to release the nutrients inside.

When food is present anywhere in the digestive system, digestive enzymes are produced and released.

One of the most widely-known digestive enzymes is lactase. This enzyme breaks down the carbohydrate lactose which is found in milk and other dairy products. People who don’t produce enough lactase can experience uncomfortable symptoms like gas, bloating, and stomach cramps when they eat dairy products.

While lactase is probably the most common digestive-enzyme deficiency, there are many other digestive enzymes that you can be deficient in. Without those enzymes, you’ll miss out on the nutrients inside the food you eat.

Digestive enzyme deficiency can also lead to an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the intestines called dysbiosis. This can cause bad breath, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and other unpleasant symptoms.

Different Types Of Digestive Enzymes

There are many digestive enzymes present in the body, but the ones that are often found in supplement form are amylase, lipase, and protease.

Amylase is an enzyme that breaks down carbohydrates. Amylase is mainly found in the mouth and small intestines.

This enzyme breaks down complex carbohydrates like starch into glucose, fructose, and/or galactose. These are the simplest forms of carbohydrates. Once they are in their smallest form, carbohydrates are absorbed by the cells where they are used to create energy.

Lipase is an enzyme that breaks down fats, also called lipids. Lipase is mostly found in the small intestine but is also present in the mouth and stomach.

This enzyme breaks down fat so that it can be absorbed by the cells of the intestines. From there, they are transported by the blood and stored throughout the body. Fat can also be used for energy.

Proteases are enzymes that break down proteins. These enzymes are found in the stomach and small intestine.

Proteases break proteins down into amino acids. Amino acids are the smallest form of protein and are called the “building blocks of life”. This is because they are used to create our cells, muscles, tissues… almost everything in the body!

Reasons To Take Digestive Enzymes

Some people naturally produce lower amounts of digestive enzymes. There are also certain conditions that can reduce your ability to produce these enzymes.

People who have had gallstones or gallbladder removal surgery will have trouble digesting fats. This is because the gallbladder stores and releases bile, a substance that allows fats to be broken down. If your gallbladder is blocked by gallstones or has been removed, fat will not be absorbed as well and will be eliminated through your stool.

Following a gallbladder removal, your doctor or dietitian may recommend taking lipase, along with bile salts, to help improve digestion and absorption of fats.

People with low stomach acid can also benefit from taking digestive enzymes. Pepsin, a type of protease, is produced in the stomach and helps digest proteins. This enzyme is activated by stomach acid.

When you have low levels of stomach acid, pepsin will not be activated. Proteins will then move to the small intestine in pieces that are too big, causing digestive upset and reducing the amount of nutrients you absorb.

People at risk for low stomach acid include people who take certain medications like antacids, proton-pump inhibitors, and H2 blockers for acid reflux or GERD.

Pancreatitis is another condition that can cause your body to produce less digestive enzymes.

The pancreas is an important organ that produces amylase, lipase, trypsin, and chymotrypsin. When you eat food, the pancreas sends these enzymes to the small intestine to digest your food.

When you have pancreatitis, these enzymes are activated when they are still inside the pancreas. This causes damage to the pancreas and can be extremely painful.

Because the digestive enzymes are activated inside the pancreas, they don’t make it to the small intestine to digest your food. People with acute or chronic pancreatitis may receive the recommendation to take digestive enzymes by their doctor.

Other diseases like Chron’s Disease, Celiac Disease, Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, and Leaky Gut Syndrome can cause your body to absorb less nutrients. Some healthcare professionals believe that these are possible underlying conditions that can result in low levels of digestive enzymes when there is no obvious cause.

Can You Take Digestive Enzymes If You’re Vegetarian?

Yes! Digestive enzymes come in two forms – animal-based and plant-based.

Animal-based digestive enzymes come from the pancreas or stomach of pigs or cows. These enzymes only work in less acidic environments like the small intestine. Because of this, animal-based enzymes are better for people who have problems with their pancreas and don’t have enough enzymes present in their small intestines.

Plant-based digestive enzymes are grown in a lab using microorganisms like aspergillus, a mold. These enzymes work in both acidic and basic environments. This makes them a good choice for people who have issues with enzymes produced in the stomach. They are also a great choice for vegetarians.

What Are Probiotics?

While digestive enzymes are proteins, probiotics are actually living creatures!

Probiotics are good bacteria that live in your small intestine. They are referred to collectively as the microbiome.

Probiotics are needed to support the health of your digestive system and immune system. As much as 75% of the body’s immune system is found in the digestive tract.

Certain probiotics produce short chain fatty acids, or SCFAs. These SCFAs support immune health, reduce inflammation, reduce the risk of colon cancer, and improve symptoms of digestive disorders.

Another benefit provided by your microbiome is the production of Vitamin K. Vitamin K is extremely important because it allows your body to form blood clots.

There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of different types of probiotics in your gut, and no two people’s microbiomes are the same. We need a good variety of different bacteria to keep us healthy and happy.

Where Do Probiotics Come From?

Unlike digestive enzymes, your body cannot make probiotics. These good bacteria must be obtained from food, supplements, or other sources.

Birth is the first source of probiotics. When a baby passes through the birth canal during a vaginal birth, the mom transfers some of her good bacteria to her baby. This helps kickstart the microbiome and immune system.

As babies grow into children, natural curiosity leads them to build their probiotic supply even further. By putting things in their mouths and playing outside in the dirt, children pick up more good bacteria and add them to their microbiome.

Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics. This is because the fermentation process provides the perfect environment for probiotics to grow and thrive. Some good examples of fermented foods include:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Sauerkraut
  • Kimchi
  • Natto
  • Kombucha
  • Tempeh

Supplements are another way to build up the population of bacteria in your gut. Countless formulations are available, but it is important to select a brand that participates in third-party lab testing and good manufacturing practices. This lets you know that the supplement contains what it’s supposed to and is safe to take.

What Are Some Reasons To Take Probiotics?

Because probiotics are bacteria, they can easily be destroyed by antibiotics. While antibiotics can be lifesavers, they can seriously alter your microbiome and lead to digestive upset, bloating, cramping, diarrhea or constipation, and a weakened immune system.

If you have been on an antibiotic, your doctor may recommend a probiotic supplement. Make sure to wait until after you have finished your antibiotics to take the probiotic supplement – otherwise the antibiotic will kill the probiotics you’re trying to build up.

Other reasons to consider probiotics include general digestive upset, undigested food in your stool, frequent yeast infections, and frequent colds.

Are Probiotics Different Than Prebiotics?

While probiotics are living creatures, prebiotics are the food for probiotics. Prebiotics are fiber-containing foods like asparagus, onions, garlic, broccoli, and leeks.

While prebiotic supplements are available, it is relatively easy to get the prebiotics you need from food. Prebiotics are just as important as probiotics and should be accounted for in your diet if you are taking a probiotic supplement or eating more probiotic foods.

Which Should You Take – Digestive Enzymes Or Probiotics?

Even though these supplements are available without a prescription, it is important to speak with a medical professional before starting digestive enzymes or probiotics. Although these supplements can be helpful for many people, they can also easily make your symptoms worse.

It is hard to know just from your symptoms whether you should take digestive enzymes or probiotics. And because both supplements come in many different formulations and varieties, it can be hard to know where to start. Add this to the fact that we still know very little about the gut microbiome and it can be overwhelming to try and decide on your own what to do.

Speak with a doctor, dietitian, or other professional to help guide you in your decision. If you’re looking to start on your own, try incorporating foods into your diet that can naturally help with digestive issues.

Fermented foods are great natural source of probiotics that can be eaten as a normal part of your diet. If you are not used to eating fermented foods, start slowly. Stomach upset and discomfort can occur in many people until your system gets used to these foods.

Some people find relief by incorporating apple cider vinegar as a substitute for digestive enzyme supplements, especially if they have low stomach acid. Make sure to dilute apple cider vinegar to avoid damage to tooth enamel.

Takeaway Notes

  • Digestive enzymes are proteins that help break down food, while probiotics are good bacteria that help maintain the health of the digestive and immune systems.
  • The main types of digestive enzymes are amylase, lipase, and protease.
  • Digestive enzymes come in animal-based and plant-based forms.
  • Probiotics come in hundreds of varieties and can be found in fermented foods like kombucha and yogurt.
  • Prebiotics act as food for probiotics and are also important to digestive health.
  • Both digestive enzymes and probiotics can be taken in supplement form, but check with a medical professional before starting either of these supplements.
Kelli Yates
Kelli Yates
Kelli Yates is a health and nutrition writer, dietetics student, and co-host and creator of The Nutrition Nerds Podcast. In her spare time she teaches the free class Well-Fed Survival: Eating Healthy After A Disaster, which helps people build nutritious emergency food supplies and prepare for natural disasters.
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