Digestive Enzymes vs. Probiotics -- Which One is Better for Your Digestion

If you struggle with digestive issues and you’re interested in supplementing for your gut health, two options you might be having trouble choosing between are digestive enzymes vs. probiotics. Here, Ana breaks down everything you need to know in order to be able to make the best choice for your digestive health!

“Between 60 and 70 million Americans struggle with some kind of digestive disorder.”

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

I am sure that many of you have faced difficulties with your digestion, either in the short or long run!  I know I have, every time I go on vacation!

Travel-related digestion issues are actually very common but there are many other gastrointestinal (GI) conditions that affect large numbers of people, as well.

These GI conditions are just one type of disease people face nowadays due to the modern, fast-paced life which doesn’t allow you much time to take care of your nutrition.

If you’re one of the people whose digestion has suffered from our gut-unhealthy lifestyle, then I’m sure you’ve heard about all kinds of treatments and supplements that are supposed to be able to help you.

Two of the most commonly touted supplements are probiotics and digestive enzymes.  In fact, these two are mentioned so frequently together, that they can be really easy mixed up!

What are probiotics?  What are digestive enzymes?

How do they both work?  Similarly?  Completely differently?

In this article, I’m going to answer all these questions — and more — for you so that you can pick the best supplement for your health!

Digestive Diseases Stats

To get a sense of how frequently people face digestive problems, let’s take a look at some statistics.

One of the latest epidemiological studies in the US found that between 60 and 70 million Americans struggle with some kind of digestive disorder.  That is roughly 20% of the whole population, which is quite a number!

Prevalence of diagnosed GI conditions in selected countries in 2018. Source - Statista.com.
Prevalence of diagnosed GI conditions in selected countries in 2018. Source – Statista.com.

And if we look back into how the fluctuation of digestion diseases has changed over time, you see a huge increase in the rates of doctor’s visits for digestive complaints since the 80s.  What’s worse, the number of people admitted to hospitals for digestive issues has also been steadily rising over the last three decades!

All Digestive Diseases: Age-Adjusted Rates of Ambulatory Care Visits and Hospital Discharges With All–Listed Diagnoses in the United States, 1979–2004. Source: National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS) (averages 1992–1993, 1994–1996, 1997–1999, 2000–2002, 2003–2005), and National Hospital Discharge Survey (NHDS)
All Digestive Diseases: Age-Adjusted Rates of Ambulatory Care Visits and Hospital Discharges With All–Listed Diagnoses in the United States, 1979–2004. Source: National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) and National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS) (averages 1992–1993, 1994–1996, 1997–1999, 2000–2002, 2003–2005), and National Hospital Discharge Survey (NHDS)

While at first glance those numbers and trends are shocking, if you really think about it, they aren’t actually all that surprising.

All you have to do is consider how fast we live and how drastically our overall lifestyle habits have changed during the last century in ways that are definitely not good for our gut health!

Fewer and fewer people have time to think about nutrition.

Less and less of our meals are prepared at home.  And more and more of us rely on ready-to-eat or processed foods, which lack (or contain very low amounts) of the healthy nutrients we need.

As a consequence, gut function and health can suffer.  And here’s where the probiotics and/or digestive enzymes come on the scene!

Is There a Difference Between Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics?

Yes, there is!  Probiotics and digestive enzymes differ from one another in:

  • Whether they are alive or not – Probiotics are living microorganisms; enzymes are not.
  • Specificity of their activity – Enzymes are specific and they carry out just a couple of specific actions inside your body, targeting specific chemical reactions in your digestive tract (for example, breaking down complex sugars).  The effects and functions of probiotics, on the other hand, are quite broad.  Probiotics are involved in more complex metabolic pathways (such as stimulating the production of antibodies) and can induce a wide range of different health effects.
  • Their correlation – Probiotics can produce digestive enzymes but the opposite isn’t true — digestive enzymes cannot create probiotics.
  • Their production – Your body makes digestive enzymes itself but it can’t produce probiotics on its own.

However, there are certain similarities between them as well, such as:

  • The location of their activity – They both work in your gut.
  • Their function – They both work to improve or repair the function of your gut.
  • Sensitivity to environmental conditions – The ability of both probiotics and digestive enzymes to function is highly dependent on their environments.  Probiotics are sensitive because they are tiny living organisms and, as is the case with all living organisms, they can only survive under specific conditions.  Extreme conditions (such as extreme temperatures or exposure to excess salt, sugar, or acid) may kill them.  Digestive enzymes are sensitive to their environments because they are proteins that need specific protein bonds to work.  This means that certain temperatures and pH conditions can inactivate enzymes by breaking down their protein bonds.

What are Digestive Enzymes?

Older man measuring out supplements

Digestive enzymes are specialized protein molecules that work inside your digestive tract and help your body digest and absorb foods you consume.

Like all enzymes, digestive enzymes work by speeding up biological reactions that naturally occur but would otherwise take too long to keep your body up and running.  Without enzymes (including digestive enzymes!), life as we know it couldn’t exist!

What Do Digestive Enzymes Do in Your Body?

As I mentioned above, the main role of digestive enzymes is to help you digest and absorb foods.

How they do this?

They use molecules of water to pry apart the chemical bonds holding your food together.  This breaks your food up into smaller, simpler building-block molecules that you can actually absorb into your body.

Digestive enzymes break:

  • proteins into amino acids
  • carbohydrates into sugars
  • fats into fatty acids

There are special digestive enzymes that break down each of these types of complex nutrients.

  • proteases break down proteins
  • amylases break down carbohydrates
  • lipases break down fats

Depending on where in your digestive system your food is, these three enzymes work in different ratios to properly break down all the nutrients in your food.

Want to learn about all the ways digestive enzymes protect your health?  Check out Sasha’s article Digestive Enzymes and Overall Health: Can Supplements Be Beneficial

little girl eating an apple

Let’s look at an example: eating an apple!

Digestion of your apple starts before you even take a bite!

As soon as you look at your apple, your salivary glands start producing amylase in anticipation of the incoming carbohydrates.

Once you take your first bite and taste the sweet, fresh fruit, the amylase production in your mouth ramps up again, so that you have plenty of digestive enzymes to start breaking down your apple.

As you chew, the amylase in your saliva mixes with all the amylase your salivary glands are making and they start breaking down the apple’s carbohydrates into simple sugars.

After you swallow, your apple moves to your stomach.  Here, proteases go to work, breaking down the proteins in your apple with the help of your highly acidic stomach acid.

From your stomach, your partly digested apple moves to your small intestine, where it meets a final battery of digestive enzymes — amylases, proteases, and lipases — which finishes breaking down your apple completely.

The sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids that once made up your apple are then absorbed through the wall of your intestine.  They enter your bloodstream and flow to your liver (to make sure no toxins are tagging along with them) and then to the rest of your organs to perform their metabolic jobs!

Effects of Taking Digestive Enzymes on Your Health

Okay, so, now we’ve seen that digestive enzymes are some of the main actors in the process of digestion.

But that doesn’t really explain why taking extra digestive enzymes could help treat digestive issues.  After all, your body makes its own digestive enzymes!  Why should you consider taking extra?

Well, actually, all of us “take” extra digestive enzymes everyday — directly in the foods we eat!

Many foods are rich in the exact same digestive enzymes your body makes for you.  When you eat these foods, the digestive enzymes they contain help you break down and properly absorb all their nutrients all the way through your digestive tract.

This means that consuming “external” digestive enzymes is a totally natural part of how your digestive system is intended to work.  And eating lots of foods naturally abundant in food enzymes can improve your digestion and the health of your entire GI tract!

What’s more, there are actually some digestive conditions that are directly caused by a digestive enzyme deficiency.

This is the case with lactose intolerance, for example.

People with lactose intolerance are unable to make enough of the digestive enzyme lactase, a type of amylase that is necessary to break down dairy sugars (specifically, lactase).

Unable to absorb the undigested lactose, those with lactose intolerance end up facing a host of unpleasant digestive problems, including bloating, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.

There are also other conditions in which the body is unable to produce digestive enzymes, including celiac disease and pancreatic insufficiency.

Boosting the intake of specific digestive enzymes (DPP IV for celiac disease and pancreatic lipases and proteases for pancreatic insufficiency, for example) can help the body the overcome these problems, and enhance the rate of digestion of these nutrients.

What are the Best Sources of Digestive Enzymes?

Foods Rich in Digestive Enzymes

Foods Rich in Digestive Enzymes: Woman holding a papaya filled with other fruits

Digestive enzymes are present in a variety of foods but they tend to be most highly concentrated in raw foods.

This is because digestive enzymes are, as I mentioned above, proteins, and they can easily degrade if they are exposed to high temperatures, such as those reached during baking, boiling, or frying.

If you have difficulties with digestion, adding lots of digestive-enzyme-rich foods to your diet may be helpful for you!  Below is a brief overview of some of the best food sources of digestive enzymes.

Foods rich in proteases (the enzymes that break down proteins):

Foods rich in amylases (the enzymes that break down carbohydrates):

Foods rich in lipases (the enzymes that break down fat):

Food rich in multiple types of digestive enzymes:

Digestive Enzyme Supplements

The other way you can get digestive enzymes is by taking digestive enzyme supplements.  This is a less natural way of increasing your digestive enzyme levels, of course.  But supplements do have some advantages over raw foods.

Digestive enzyme supplements are:

  • easier to work into your daily routine
  • provide highly concentrated doses of digestive enzymes
  • allow you to take very specific doses of very specific digestive enzymes

Digestive enzyme supplements can be extracted from animal tissues, plants, or microbes.

Keep in mind that all digestive enzymes are sensitive to pH.  This means that, under normal circumstances, not all the digestive enzymes you take are able to survive the highly acidic environment of your stomach.

Of course, there are some processing techniques (such as a coating) that manufacturers use when making digestive enzyme supplements that can help them resist the acidic environment in your belly.

So, if you really want to try a supplement that contains digestive enzymes, be sure to check if the packaging states that the capsules are coated!

Otherwise, you’ll likely just be wasting your money.

👉 Learn more about the best digestive enzyme supplements on the market! 👈

What are Probiotics?

“A scientist named Henry Tissier discovered that the guts of breast-fed babies contained specifically shaped bacteria which weren’t present in guts of formula-fed babies suffering from diarrhea.”

National Institutes of Health

The term “probiotic” is derived from Latin and means “for life”.  And that’s exactly what probiotics are — alive!

Specifically, probiotics are living microorganisms that help you maintain the health of your body (when you consume enough of them, anyway!).

The science behind probiotics started a century ago.

A scientist named Henry Tissier discovered that the guts of breast-fed babies contained specifically shaped bacteria which weren’t present in guts of formula-fed babies suffering from diarrhea.  This was the very first clue that “good stomach bacteria” can help keep you healthy!

Since then, the research in this field has only grown and grown!

In fact, today we know that there are dozens and dozens of probiotic species that help protect your health.  Most commonly, these probiotic species belong to the following microorganismal families:

  • Lactobacillus bacteria
  • Bifidobacterium bacteria
  • E. coli bacteria
  • Bacillus bacteria
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast

What Do Probiotics Do in Your Body?

Woman in a white sports bra stretching

To understand how probiotics work, you first need to know about something called your microbiota.

Your microbiota is the name researchers give to the trillions of microorganisms that live in and on your body and function together with you in a perfect balance (when you’re healthy) or in imbalance (when you’re ill).

When you consume healthy bacteria that are normal, healthy residents of your microbiota, they set up camp.  They attach themselves to your “villi” — the tiny hairs lining your intestines — multiply, build colonies, and boost the overall health of your microbiota.

This allows your microbiota to carry out the normal activities it uses to help keep you healthy even better.  The most important of these activities include:

  • Removing dangerous bacteria from your digestive tract
  • Producing chemicals that kill infectious bacteria
  • Strengthening your intestinal wall
  • Helping rebuild a healthy gut-bacterial-balance if it’s become imbalanced (such as can occur after taking a course of antibiotics, for example)
  • Boosting the function of your immune system

Effects of Taking Probiotics on Your Health

If you stop for a moment to look back at this list of activities, it’s no wonder that probiotics are so praised for their health benefits.

Indeed, there is strong evidence that increasing your probiotic intake can be very helpful for:

Would you like to delve into the details of all the ways probiotics can help protect your health?  Read our in-depth review of probiotics’ benefits!

What are the Best Sources of Probiotics?

Foods Rich in Probiotics

If you’re interested in increasing your daily dose of probiotics, you can first try to up your intake of probiotic-rich foods!

Foods that are abundant in these tiny microbes are fermented foods, which use healthy probiotic bacteria in their fermentation processes!

Here are the best food sources of probiotics!

Fermented vegetables:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Pickles
  • Kimchi

Fermented (black/green) teas:

(You likely noticed that some of these foods were also listed in the section on the foods containing digestive enzymes!  These foods will definitely give you one heck of a digestive bang for your buck!)

Probiotic Supplements

As with digestive enzymes, you can also increase your intake of probiotics by taking a concentrated supplement.

Probiotic supplements come in capsule, tablet, or powder form.

All good probiotic supplements should explicitly list the number of probiotics, the genus, species, and strain of the microorganism, as well as its product’s shelf life, directly on the label.

Before you just go pick up any ol’ probiotic supplement, though, you should know that not all probiotic strains work the same.  Make sure to do a little bit of research about which probiotic strain(s) will be the best fit for you.

Our article on the Best Probiotic Supplements offers a great jumping-off point!

When Should You Take Digestive Enzymes and When Should You Take Probiotics?

Digestive enzymes are the best choice when your body is struggling to digest a specific type of food or nutrient.

Based on the current evidence, digestive enzymes are almost certainly useful for you if you have:

Probiotics, on the other hand, are likely are a better choice if you are looking for broader gut-health boosting effects.

Some of the conditions which researchers are certain can benefit from taking a probiotic are:

  • Antibiotic-induced diarrhea (treatment and prevention)
  • Traveler’s diarrhea (treatment and prevention)
  • Infection-induced diarrhea

Of course, as I outlined above, there are many other health benefits of probiotics!  The exact benefits, though, depend on the strain and dosage you take.

I recommend talking to your doctor about whether a probiotic is a good fit for you and, if so, which species, specifically, you should take.

When Shouldn’t You Take Digestive Enzymes?

There are only a few situations in which taking digestive enzymes may not be safe (in supplement form, that is — digestive enzymes from food are essentially always safe to consume as long as you are not allergic).

The situations in which you should avoid taking digestive enzyme supplements are:

  • If you are taking warfarin (or similar blood-thinning medications).  Bromelain (a protease) together with a blood thinner may increase your risk of excess bleeding.  Because of bromelain’s anti-clotting properties, it may increase menstrual bleeding, as well.
  • If you are allergic to the foods the enzymes were extracted from.  You may trigger an allergic reaction if you take a supplement made from food you are allergic to.  For bromelain supplements, that can include pineapple, wheat, and carrots.  You shouldn’t take papain supplements if you are allergic to papaya, kiwi fruit, or figs.
  • If you are pregnant.  The evidence on taking digestive enzyme supplements during pregnancy is scarce, so to be on the safe side, you should probably avoid taking digestive enzyme supplements if you are expecting.

If you are not on a blood thinner, allergic to the supplement’s ingredients, or pregnant, digestive enzyme supplements should be safe for you to take.

Just make sure you are sticking to the recommended doses.

When Shouldn’t You Take Probiotics?

Probiotics are also considered generally safe, in the healthy population.  However, there are a few situations that may require a touch more caution.  These are:

  • If you have a suppressed immune system.  This might be due to surgery, chemotherapy, or an HIV infection, for example.  In conditions of compromised immunity, probiotics can colonize out of control.  As a consequence, you may develop an infection, so it’s better to not go for a probiotic if you have a weak immune system.
  • If you are allergic to certain ingredients used in the production of probiotics.  Such common allergens are dairy, egg or soy.  To be on the safe side, carefully read all labels and warnings before taking a supplement!
  • If you have kidney disease.  Research suggests that probiotics may worsen kidney disease.  It seems that probiotics can influence kidney function, causing them to filter urine less efficiently.  As a result, the levels of some toxic substances (such as uric acid) may be able to creep up and harm your kidneys.  But the science here is still really new and researchers aren’t yet sure how great the risk might really be.  Nevertheless, for right now, if you suffer from a kidney disorder, it’s probably better to avoid taking probiotics until we know for sure.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, we still need more data that will help us draw clear conclusions about probiotic safety and potential side effects in any other groups.

Note on Supplements

When it comes to any kind of supplementation, you should bear in mind that there are two types of supplements on the market:

  • those regulated and approved by the FDA
  • over-the-counter supplements

FDA approved supplements are held to a high-quality standard and are guaranteed to contain the substance and dosage on the label.

Over-the-counter supplements, on the other hand, don’t have to pass rigorous investigations in the clinical trials.

Some manufacturers abuse this fact and are inconsistent with their production methods (which results in supplements that vary in their dosages and sometimes even content).

This doesn’t mean that all over-the-counter supplements are necessarily bad.  But it’s always best to be informed and cautious when picking the best supplement for you.

Inform yourself about the best-reviewed brands, as well as the best supplements for your specific symptoms.

Can You Take Digestive Enzymes and Probiotics at the Same Time?

It seems that taking digestive enzymes and probiotics together may lead to synergistic effects — meaning they may work better if you take them together.

This has been shown in a couple of medical studies.  For example, the addition of lactase to probiotic milk eased the symptoms of lactose intolerance better than probiotics or lactase alone.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of data on this yet, so it’s hard to say with 100% certainty that combining these gut-healthy supplements will always provide you with additional benefits.

If you think you would benefit from taking both, talk to your doctor or pharmacist to make sure it’s the right approach for you.

Take Home Message

Probiotics and digestive enzymes can provide loads of benefits for your health and there are a lot of reasons to include them in your daily routine!

Digestive enzymes are involved in specific chemical reactions in your GI system, while probiotics are involved in more complex metabolic pathways.  Nevertheless, both of them can positively influence the health of your digestive system.

You can increase your intake of digestive enzymes and probiotics by tweaking your diet or adding a supplement to your routine.

If you do decide a supplement is the right choice for you, make sure to research the best fit for your symptoms before you start taking them and always stick to the recommended doses.

If you are interested in giving some kids’ probiotics a go, then I strongly recommend the options listed in this article: The Best Probiotics for Kids: An Expert’s Guide for Moms

Read Next: Best Leaky Gut Supplements for Leaky Gut Treatment

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