Digestive Enzymes vs Probiotics: Ultimate Guide

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Digestive enzymes and probiotics work together to provide a healthy digestive system in the human body. Although their functions are completely different, the two can complement one another to improve digestive function and prevent any kind of imbalance in the gut. 

Gut health in general is rather complex, and the same applies to the relationship between digestive enzymes and probiotics.

As a result, many people often wonder whether it’s more advantageous to take one over the other, or if it’s safe and effective to take both at the same time.  

This guide will take an in-depth look at some of the main similarities and differences between digestive enzymes and probiotics, including the key benefits of each and the most effective ways to incorporate both into your diet for healthy digestion. 

Are Digestive Enzymes And Probiotics The Same? 

While digestive enzymes and probiotics may work together and are both essential for a healthy digestive system, they’re very different and affect gut health in contrasting ways. 

To put it simply, digestive enzymes improve the processes of digestion, while probiotics keep the digestive environment healthy. Having too little of either one can be hugely detrimental to gut health. 

What Are Probiotics? 

To help explain exactly what probiotics are, we’ll start by taking a look at the definition provided by the World Health Organization (WHO).

They define probiotics as “live microorganisms which when consumed in adequate amounts as part of food confer a health benefit on the host.” 

In other words, probiotics are “good gut bacteria” that not only support digestion and absorption, but also other areas of the body such as the immune system and neurotransmitter production. 

When you consume probiotic supplements or foods that contain probiotics like yogurt or kimchi, the “good” bacteria primarily work to stop an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Furthermore, probiotics also help to support a strong gut barrier. 

Another useful function of probiotics is the fact that they help with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), antibiotic-related diarrhea, and many other digestive issues. 

If however, probiotics in the gut are depleted due to medications or other conditions, it’s more than likely that digestive health will suffer as a result. What’s more, an imbalance in gut bacteria can lead to problems such as a weakened immune system, a disrupted gut, and even drastic changes to mood. 

What Are Digestive Enzymes?

In contrast to probiotics, digestive enzymes are non-living proteins. They’re primarily produced in the pancreas, as well as all along the digestive tract in the mouth, stomach, and small intestine. 

The main role of digestive enzymes is to help break down different foods so that they’re small enough for the body to easily extract and absorb the required nutrients.

Each type of digestive enzyme is unique to the specific role it plays in digestion and the type of macronutrient it’s responsible for breaking down. 

Some of the most common digestive enzymes in the body include:

  • Amylase – found in the saliva and primarily targets carbohydrates, breaking them down into simple sugars
  • Lipase – produced in the pancreas and secreted into the small intestine for helping break down and digest fat
  • Protease – located in the stomach and works to break down protein into amino acids 

There are some disorders that actually cause insufficient production of these essential enzymes in the body. For example,  lactose intolerance is a common condition caused by a lack of lactase, the enzyme which breaks down lactose (a milk protein). 

People with this disorder experience significant discomfort, like bloating, cramps and diarrhea, when they consume anything made with milk because the lactose can’t be broken down effectively. 

Listed below are some of the other common health conditions and food intolerances closely linked with decreased digestive enzyme production in the body. 

  • Pancreatitis
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Celiac disease
  • Cystic fibrosis 

Although it’s clear that digestive enzymes provide promising benefits for people with a deficiency, it remains unclear if they improve digestion for those without a specific need.

This research is limited, with most of the previous studies mainly focused on prescription enzymes and enzymes combined with probiotic use. 

Why Are Digestive Enzymes Important? 

As mentioned previously, digestive enzymes are essential for nutrient absorption. Without them, macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fat and protein aren’t broken down enough before they reach the small intestine for absorption. 

If this happens, malabsorption occurs and vital nutrients are wasted. This improperly digested food then brings water into our intestines, causing a range of uncomfortable symptoms, including gas, bloating, and diarrhea. 

Vitamin and mineral deficiency is another thing to worry about, because if your body fails to produce enough lipase, fat can’t be broken down effectively. This means that your body can’t absorb fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. 

Likewise, if improper digestion causes you to have frequent diarrhea, you’ll likely lose essential electrolytes and water-soluble vitamins. 

Despite the fact that some severe conditions require prescription enzyme replacement therapy, some digestive problems can be solved with a simple over the counter digestive enzyme. For example, those with lactose intolerance can take lactase to improve digestion since they can’t produce it naturally. 

As a result, people with lactose intolerance can introduce dairy into their diet without any damaging consequences. Similarly, those who are unable to tolerate legumes can take an alpha-galactosidase supplement to improve digestion. 

Benefits Of Digestive Enzymes 

The most significant benefit of digestive enzymes is their ability to help your body break down food better. This automatically translates to more efficient digestive health.

You’ll likely experience less gas, burping, and bloating, and also notice that your stomach feels notably lighter and emptier. 

Benefits Of Probiotics 

The primary benefit of probiotics is better gut health. However, since your gut is effectively the epicenter of your whole body, the health benefits extend way beyond just improved gut health.

Just keep in mind that the health areas that probiotics target are specific to the types of strains. Listed below are some of the other notable benefits of using probiotics. 

  • Probiotics can help support a healthy, manageable weight 
  • When probiotics feed on prebiotics, they form short-chain fatty acids which have been proven to support the health of our gut lining and help promote a good inflammatory response
  • Probiotics improve the efficiency of your immune system
  • Probiotics may help regulate your mood

Can They Be Taken Together?

Taking both digestive enzymes and probiotics together can produce a best-case solution for your digestion.

Not only is the process of digestion improved to ensure food is broken down and absorbed properly, the digestive system is also protected from harmful gut bacteria – creating a balanced and healthy environment for digestion. 

Both supplements can be safely consumed at the same time in most cases. In fact, taking both could actually provide the most benefit to your body. 

Which Is Better For Digestion? 

Deciding whether to take digestive enzymes, probiotics, or both at the same time, depends on your body and your specific goals. Your body doesn’t naturally make probiotics, so taking a supplement has digestive benefits for everyone. 

If you already struggle with digestion issues, taking probiotics can significantly improve gastrointestinal symptoms. However, many people still prefer to take probiotics on a supportive and preventative basis. 

If you suffer from food allergies or symptoms that suggest malabsorption, a potential lack of digestive enzymes is a possibility. A supplement could considerably improve your digestion. 

Considerations For Digestive Enzyme Supplementation 

If you’re considering supplementing digestive enzymes, the first thing to take in account is what you’re hoping to achieve by taking the supplement.

For example, if you have a specific condition or sensitivity that’s causing a deficiency, you’ll require a suitable supplement to provide your body with the exact digestive support it needs. 

Both prescription and over the counter supplements come in the form of pills, liquids and powders from animal and plant-based sources. 

If you simply want to support healthy digestion, you can either try an over the counter supplement or incorporate natural sources of digestive enzymes into your daily diet. Some of the popular foods with natural digestive enzymes include:

  • Pineapple
  • Kiwi
  • Banana
  • Honey
  • Papaya

Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind that there can be potential side effects to taking digestive enzymes, especially for people who may be allergic to certain enzymes or take high doses. These side effects include stomach discomfort, nausea and vomiting. 

Considerations For Probiotic Supplementation 

If you decide to opt for a probiotic supplement, there are a couple of things to consider. First, make sure you choose a supplement that fits your individual needs. There are countless microorganisms that live in your gut and several types of probiotics that affect the body in different ways. 

Since there’s such a wide variety of probiotics available, it’s essential that you don’t just grab the first supplement you see. Depending on your specific body and goals, you’ll want to select a product with a range of high-quality probiotic strains that are proven in clinical research to address your health needs.  

Finally, it’s important to remember timing. The most effective time to take probiotics is on an empty stomach. With this in mind, many people like to take them first thing in the morning before breakfast or just before going to bed at night. On the other hand, digestive enzymes function best when taken with meals. 

Digestive Enzymes vs Probiotics Final Thoughts

To conclude, both digestive enzymes and probiotics are excellent for digestion. While they have the potential to work effectively together, they benefit the body in completely different ways. 

Digestive enzymes are ideal for people with a specific deficiency or need, and impact the body by speeding up and improving digestion.

On the other hand, probiotics offer benefits for everyone of all levels of health, age, or gender. They support overall gut health, including seamless digestion and a healthy gut barrier function to absorb nutrients from your food. 

Both can be safely taken together, with some studies even suggesting that probiotics enhance the performance of enzyme supplementation. Just make sure that you select a digestive enzyme or probiotic based on your individual needs and one that’s high in quality. 

Probiology Probiotics

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Frequently Asked Questions 

Can you have too many digestive enzymes?

Taking too many enzyme supplements can actually do more harm than good and damage your intestines. However, taking too few can prevent you from absorbing the important nutrients you need. 

Can your body become dependent on digestive enzymes?

A concern shared by many is that the body can become too dependent on digestive enzyme supplements. However, there’s no research to suggest that this is the case.

In fact, the only scenario where this would potentially happen is in cases where the body doesn’t produce a specific enzyme and requires a particular enzyme for efficient digestion. In any other situation, it’s unlikely that you can become over-reliant on a digestive enzyme. 

Should I take digestive enzymes with every meal?

Digestive enzymes are meant to mimic your natural enzymes, therefore they must be taken before you eat on an empty stomach. This enables them to work as soon as the food reaches your stomach and small intestine.

Written and Medically Reviewed By

  • Chelsea Cleary, RDN

    Chelsea is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) specializing in holistic treatment for chronic digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), SIBO, and Crohn’s disease. She educates patients on how they can heal themselves from their conditions by modifying lifestyle and dietary habits.

  • Julie Guider, M.D.

    Dr. Julie Guider earned her medical degree from Louisiana State University School of Medicine. She completed residency in internal medicine at the University of Virginia. She completed her general gastroenterology and advanced endoscopy fellowships at University of Texas-Houston. She is a member of several national GI societies including the AGA, ACG, and ASGE as well as state and local medical societies.