Poor digestion is one of the most common health complaints today. Digestive enzymes and probiotics are two of the most widely used remedies. Can using digestive enzymes and probiotics together offer you extra benefits or is it just a waste of your time and money? Here Gabriela, one of our resident health and nutrition experts, answers just that question!
If you aren’t very familiar with the words “digestive enzymes” and “probiotics”, where does your mind go when you hear them?
Probably to the pharmacy section that sells tablets whose packaging reads something along the lines of “helps with digestion after a big meal”.
And there is a reason so many of these types of tablets are sold!
Tons of people have digestive issues!
If you personally do not experience any on a daily basis, it is very likely you have a friend or family member that is always complaining about tummy troubles.
Digestive enzymes and probiotics are two supplements that can work to ease belly woes. So, I want to explore them, and how they work, here!
But first, a brief science and public health lesson so you understand a little bit about digestion and its importance in health!
- Digestive Health: A Quick Science and Public Health Overview
- What are Digestive Enzymes?
- What Symptoms or Conditions Can Digestive Enzymes Help?
- What are Probiotics?
- Is Taking Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics Together a Good Idea?
- When Should You Take Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics Together?
- When Shouldn’t You Take Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics Together?
- What are the Best Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics for Digestive Health?
- Take Home Message
Digestive Health: A Quick Science and Public Health Overview
The human digestive system is one of the longest and most complex organ systems in the body.
Starting at your lips and mouth and running all the way to your colon and anus, your 30 feet of gastrointestinal tract break down the food you eat, absorb nutrients, and contribute to your immune system.
It is incredibly important for the health of your entire body.
Many of Us Struggle with Digestion
In 2010 in the United States alone, there were 21.7 million hospitalizations due to digestive diseases, with a general prevalence of 60 to 70 million people affected by a given digestive issue.
In 2016, researchers estimated that 10 to 15% of the global population experienced irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). And at least 74% of Americans suffer regular digestive symptoms, such as:
- abdominal pain
Fortunately, by taking conscious action, you can prevent or treat most of these symptoms and conditions.
Here, I’ll explore digestive enzymes and probiotics, two key players in the digestive process.
Both are naturally found in your body. But, in some cases, when they are low or lacking, you can take them as supplements or draw them from foods to boost your digestive health.
Related Reading: Top 5 Best Digestive Enzyme Supplements to Fix Leaky Gut
What are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive Enzyme Definition
As the name suggests, digestive enzymes are molecules that your body naturally produces to aid in digestion.
All enzymes’ primary function is to accelerate chemical reactions. In this context, then, digestive enzymes speed up digestive reactions. They take your meals (carbohydrates, proteins, and fat) and separate them into smaller molecules. These smaller molecules are what you can actually absorb as nutrients.
Pretty much, you can think about digestive enzymes as “digestive facilitators”.
Visualize a big steak full of protein and then try to wrap your mind around the tiny molecule of an amino acid. Your body has to chop up that massive steak (that you can hold and see!) into microscopic amino acids.
Digestive enzymes are the lumberjacks that do this chopping!
Types of Digestive Enzymes
Your digestive tract produces several types of digestive enzymes. Your mouth, stomach, and small intestine make some of them. Mainly, though, your pancreas is responsible for their production.
- Lipases: break down triglycerides and fats into essential fatty acids, which are necessary for a wide variety of body and cell functions
- Amylases: break down starches and carbohydrates into sugar, which are used to give your body energy
- Proteases (and peptidases): break down proteins into amino acids, which are necessary for making hormones, neurotransmitters, and other crucial molecules
When to Take Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes should be taken with food. That’s the whole point! They help you digest the food you’re eating!
As such, you should take your digestive enzymes with food or immediately after eating.
You should also keep in mind that the different digestive enzymes mentioned above should be taken with their matching food group. So, for example, you want to take your protease supplement when you eat a protein-rich steak.
Most available products in the market have clear instructions on their labels.
What Symptoms or Conditions Can Digestive Enzymes Help?
- irritable bowel syndrome
- abdominal discomfort
Because of their “breaking down” nature, digestive enzymes also aid in any conditions caused by the poor break down of foods. And there are a couple of specific conditions where digestive enzymes are a must.
Such is the case for pancreatic insufficiency, for example.
The pancreas is a main player in the process of digestion. This small organ produces juices or chemicals that are a crucial part of your ability to break down food.
Pancreatic insufficiency can be genetic or caused by a duct blockage. In these cases, you have to take the enzymes your pancreas would normally make for you as a supplement. Taking these supplements (called “enzyme replacement therapy” by doctors) is really effective at relieving symptoms of pancreatic insufficiency. Plus, it is a safe treatment without many side effects.
Another instance in which digestive enzymes come to the rescue is lactose intolerance.
Lactose intolerance occurs when the digestive tract is lacking the enzyme lactase, which is necessary for digesting dairy. Once more, digestive enzymes come to the rescue. In this case, the digestive enzyme prescribed is lactase.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are living microorganisms that can aid your digestive health. They are often dubbed “friendly bacteria”.
It sounds strange but your body has a lot of bacteria in and on it!
Luckily, they don’t cause you any harm. On the contrary, they actually help maintain a healthy balance in your gut.
Probiotic supplements contain healthy bacteria that you can take to enhance this balance even further.
Probiotic Supplement Benefits
- reduce inflammation
- ease depression symptoms
- reduce anxiety
- lower blood pressure
- reduce cholesterol levels
- boost immune system function
- aid weight loss
- improve digestion
Too good to be true? Don’t doubt it!
The research just keeps supporting their usefulness in protecting your health!
Don’t Miss This: The Best Microbiome Testing Companies: Gut Testing Made Easy
Where to Find Probiotics in Foods
In addition to supplements, some foods are naturally rich in probiotics. Some foods that classify as probiotic-rich include:
Aside from yogurt, these food names might seem foreign, but they can be included in tasty recipes and found in many markets and health food stores.
What Symptoms or Conditions Can Probiotics Help?
Just as with digestive enzymes, probiotics can help with a variety of gastrointestinal (and non-gastrointestinal) conditions. They are typically considered useful for:
- irritable bowel syndrome
- inflammatory bowel disease
- insulin resistance syndrome
- type 2 diabetes
- non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
Let’s Compare These Two Digestive Aids! A Small Recap:
Before we go into how to take digestive enzymes and probiotics together (if you should at all), let’s recap a bit.
- naturally produced by the body to break down food
- classified into three main categories corresponding to food groups
- can be taken as supplements or found in foods
- living microorganisms
- are not produced by your body
- can be taken as a supplement or found in foods
Is Taking Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics Together a Good Idea?
Taking digestive enzymes and probiotics together is a good idea.
Despite being two different supplements, they both aid in the digestive process and taking them together is common. In some cases, they are actually prescribed together to truly help digestion.
This is because there is synergy (or “positive cooperation”) between these two supplements in your body.
They both actively help nutrient absorption and boost your immune system. But they do so by different mechanisms. This means they can both do their jobs at the exact same time (they don’t get in each other’s way) and you get double the benefits.
When Should You Take Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics Together?
While combining these two supplements can always be useful for your digestive health, there are three specific situations you should definitely try taking digestive enzymes and probiotics together!
As stated above, lactose intolerance is caused by a lack of the lactase enzyme in your digestive tract. Naturally, this means that taking a digestive enzymes supplement that contains lactase is super helpful for treating symptoms!
Interestingly, there is one particular class of bacteria, called Lactobacilli, that help break down lactose all on their own.
Lactose intolerant or lactose sensitive people should consider taking both supplements. They will cooperate and help alleviate symptoms like bloating and inflammation.
Unhealthy Cholesterol Levels
Studies show that taking probiotics and digestive enzymes together can be really effective at balancing unhealthy cholesterol levels. They lower LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and raise HDL (“good cholesterol”).
If you have pancreatic insufficiency, probiotics can complement your prescribed enzyme replacement therapy.
Probiotics can reduce inflammation in your gut while the digestive enzymes are working on breaking down your food.
If you are unsure if your digestive issue should be targeted with digestive enzymes, probiotics, or both, take one moment to think what the root cause and symptoms of your condition.
Are you having trouble digesting specific types of food? Then digestive enzymes are the way to go!
Are you experiencing gut inflammation related to an infection? Then probiotics are the better choice.
Take some time to figure out what is causing your troubles and what needs to be targeted to fix them. And keep in mind that, in some cases (like lactose intolerance), the supplements will happily cooperate to get you feeling better, faster.
Note: Many products already combine digestive enzymes and probiotics
Some supplements already have both enzymes and probiotics in the same capsule. While this might seem like a great solution if you’re interested in taking digestive enzyme and probiotics together, it may be better to buy them separately.
This is because these supplements need to be taken at different times during the day.
You should take digestive enzymes with a meal or directly after a meal (no more than 10 minutes before eating).
Probiotics, on the other hand, should be taken before a meal because they work better on an empty stomach. The bacteria in your probiotic supplement are sensitive to your stomach’s acidity. So, it is best to take them 30 minutes before a meal. Taking them after a meal (when digestive enzymes are really useful) seems to make probiotics less effective.
When Shouldn’t You Take Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics Together?
The only time you really shouldn’t combine digestive enzymes and probiotics is if it is unsafe for you to take one of the supplements on their own.
While, generally, both are considered safe, there are a few situations in which you should be cautious!
When Not to Take Digestive Enzymes
You should not start taking digestive enzymes if you are suffering from acute or chronic pancreatitis. This is because your doctor has already prescribed you the medications you need — and one of them is probably a digestive enzyme. Do not combine or add additional digestive enzymes! You are almost certainly already taking some!
Another instance in which you should be careful taking digestive enzymes is during pregnancy and breastfeeding. There is not enough research to know if digestive enzymes are safe for you and your baby.
Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that digestive enzymes won’t help digestive complaints during pregnancy because they are caused by hormones, not digestive enzyme deficiencies.
If for some reason you think your digestion could use enzyme supplements and you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor.
When Not to Take Probiotics
Weakened Intestinal Wall or Intestinal Function
There have been cases in which probiotics have triggered infections in people with underdeveloped intestines or those with trauma to their gut. This includes:
- people after intestinal surgery
- those with short-gut syndrome
- very young infants
If any of these sound like you (or your children), probiotics might not be a great choice for you.
Weak Immune System
Another instance when probiotics might not be a good idea is if you have a weak immune system. You may have a weakened immune system from:
- an HIV infection
- an autoimmune disorder
Since probiotics are bacteria and your immune system is responsible for keeping bacteria from infecting your body, having a weak immune system while taking probiotics can put you at risk for getting an infection.
Certain strains of probiotics have a higher risk of leading to an infection than others. Because of this, you have to be very careful which probiotics you are taking when facing immune deficiencies. Please don’t take a probiotic without talking to your doctor if your immune system isn’t in tip-top shape.
Check labels on all your supplements! Read carefully how much and in what cases your specific supplement is safe and when you should be careful. Most products will explain this.
Generally, both digestive enzymes and probiotics do not have severe side effects and they will certainly help with digestion. But again, be conscious of dosage, both in amount and time.
You should also keep an eye out for allergens or allergic reactions. Some people can be sensitive to certain types of enzymes or filler ingredients in any supplement. Make sure to read labels carefully for known allergens. And stop taking a supplement immediately if you suspect you may be having an allergic reaction to it.
What are the Best Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics for Digestive Health?
Popular Types of Probiotics
Three popular classes of probiotics are:
Many supplements in the market contain strains from one, two, or all three of these classes of probiotics.
Well-studied strains that are worth looking for in your probiotic supplements include:
- B. animalis (known to be useful for constipation)
- L. rhamnosus (known to be useful for constipation, diarrhea)
- L. reuteri (known to be useful for constipation)
- L. acidophilus (known to be useful for constipation, diarrhea, IBS)
- L. plantarum (known to be useful for constipation)
- B. longum (known to be useful for constipation)
- S. cerevisiae (known to be useful for constipation)
- B. lactis (known to be useful for constipation)
- L. bulgaricus (known to be useful for diarrhea)
- B. coagulans (known to be useful for diarrhea, IBS)
- S. boulardii (known to be useful diarrhea, IBS)
To find an excellent probiotic supplement to meet your individual needs, I highly recommend checking out this article!
Best Digestive Enzymes
The best digestive enzyme for you to take will depend on the food you’re having trouble digesting.
Some types of digestive enzymes that are commonly helpful include:
It’s important to take the time to understand which digestive symptoms you are prone to and under which circumstances. Whether it’s through online research, talking to friends, or (best of all) visiting health professionals, you have to figure out what is triggering your symptoms.
Once you’ve pinpointed this, you can find the appropriate digestive enzyme or combination of enzymes to get your symptoms under control. Generally speaking, taking digestive enzymes can help boost nutrient absorption, prevent bloating and gas, reduce acid reflux symptoms, and support digestive health.
If you need help finding a reputable digestive enzyme brand that will meet your digestive needs, I highly recommend checking out this article!
Take Home Message
Digestive issues can be relieved by the use of both digestive enzymes and probiotics. In fact, combining these two supplements is a good idea in some cases. Digestive enzymes are produced by your bodies but, in certain cases, can be added as supplements. Probiotics, on the other hand, are living organisms that can’t be produced by your body. Overall, they both are very beneficial for digestion and they can help one another do their jobs better if combined.
Supplementing with butyrate may help your gut wall get stronger, healthier, and more able to do its job. Read Next: Top 5 Best Butyrate Supplements for Leaky Gut Cure