Health 

Digestive Enzymes vs. Probiotics: Key Differences to Know

April 20, 2021 6 min read

Hands rolling dough with gluten

Good digestion is essential for overall health, and new research continues to showcase the many ways this is true. With more awareness of the importance of optimizing digestive health, supplements like digestive enzymes and probiotics have proliferated. 

But what do these supplements actually do, and what's the difference between them? 

Digestive enzymes and probiotics both help with digestion, but they do so in different ways. 

Understanding the unique roles of digestive enzymes vs. probiotics and the complementary relationship between them can help you make an informed decision and optimize your digestive and overall wellness. 

Understanding digestion  

At its most basic level, digestion is the process of breaking down food molecules into smaller units that are then absorbed into the bloodstream and used by the body for things like energy and restoration. 

This process is essential for powering just about every bodily function you can think of. But the digestive process itself also requires a great deal of energy. If something is amiss within the digestive tract, the body may require even more energy for the breakdown, leaving less energy for everything else the body needs to do to keep us alive and healthy. 

The digestive tract also houses the gut microbiome, a collection of trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, many of which are beneficial and some of which can be harmful. 

The importance of maintaining a balanced gut microbiome and efficient digestive function are both well documented. We've learned more and more over the last several decades about how the health of the gut affects the health of the brain, the immune system, hormonal function, and even the heart

Given the significance of digestion and gut health, it's not surprising that many people have turned to supplements like digestive enzymes and probiotics to enhance their health. 

What are digestive enzymes? 

Digestive enzymes are tiny proteins that target and break down specific food molecules. You can think of digestive enzymes as essential members of the digestive team, each with its own unique and specialized role. 

We know that the digestive process involves breaking down food molecules into their usable components, allowing nutrients to absorb into the bloodstream. Different types of foods comprise different molecules, and specific enzymes exist to break down certain molecules.

Digestive enzymes are found throughout the digestive system, including in the mouth, stomach, large intestine, small intestine, and pancreas, depending on where their accompanying food molecules are digested. They're produced by the body when the presence of their associated food is detected. 

Every digestive enzyme has its own shape, specifically designed to connect with the food molecule it's responsible for breaking down. This connection compares to a key that fits into a lock, although recent scientific advances have shown that their structures are actually quite flexible

There are three primary groups of digestive enzymes: 

  • Lipases: Lipases break down fats and triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol. 
  • Proteases: Proteases are responsible for breaking down proteins into amino acids.
  • Amylases: Amylases help to break down carbohydrates into sugars. 

Within these categories are several kinds of enzymes. For example, the enzyme lactase is designed to break down lactose (milk sugar). When the body fails to produce lactase, lactose intolerance often results.

Barista steaming milk which requires digestive enzymes to break down

Should I take digestive enzyme supplements? 

Your body produces digestive enzymes naturally, but certain factors can influence whether or not you're making enough of them. 

Factors that may influence digestive enzyme production include: 

  • Genetics
  • Increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) 
  • Diet low in fresh, whole foods 
  • Digestive habits (i.e., how, when, and where you eat) 
  • Autoimmune conditions 
  • Pancreatic insufficiency 
  • Aging 

In some instances, a person may lack a particular kind of enzyme, making them sensitive to the type of food that enzyme is meant to break down. Many food sensitivities or intolerances stem from enzyme insufficiencies. In these cases, those affected may take targeted digestive enzymes.

Digestive enzyme blends are also available, containing multiple enzymes designed to break down foods that are notoriously difficult to digest. 

Some dietary supplements like collagen peptides may also include digestive enzymes designed to help break down their own ingredients, making them more bioavailable and effective.* 

Digestive enzymes may be taken for a short period of time while healing the gut and increasing natural production. They may also be taken on a more long-term basis for those who have genetic or otherwise chronic insufficiencies. 

Signs of insufficient enzyme production may include: 

  • Food intolerances or sensitivities 
  • Digestive symptoms (nausea, constipation, diarrhea, acid reflux, gas) 
  • Feeling tired or bloated after eating 
  • Diagnosis of SIBO or IBS 
  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight 
  • Headaches 
  • Brain fog or difficulty concentrating 
  • Mood swings or imbalances 

You can also get some digestive enzymes from dietary sources. Many raw foods like fruits and vegetables contain the active enzymes required for their own breakdown, reducing the body's burden to produce them. But digestive enzymes are sensitive to heat and other environmental factors, meaning that most are lost when food is cooked or processed in any way. 

What are probiotics? 

Probiotics are live bacterial organisms that contribute to good health or provide health benefits

Your body has trillions of bacteria living in your gut microbiome, made up of hundreds of different species. Some species and strains have been researched and found to be beneficial, while others can be harmful. 

A plentiful supply of helpful strains is needed to support not only digestion and gut health but immune system function, brain health, mood, and overall wellness.* 

An imbalance between helpful and pathogenic bacteria within the gut is referred to as dysbiosis and can contribute to health problems. 

Hand holding probiotic capsules

Should I take probiotic supplements? 

For some, probiotic supplements can help level out an imbalanced gut microbiome, replacing harmful bacteria and enhancing the function of beneficial strains.*

Factors that may disrupt the balance of bacteria in the gut microbiome include: 

Because gut health influences so many different areas of overall wellness, symptoms may vary significantly from person to person. 

Signs of disturbances in the gut may include: 

  • Digestive symptoms (bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea) 
  • Impaired immune system function or autoimmune conditions 
  • Fatigue
  • Chronic infections
  • Skin conditions 
  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight 
  • Mood imbalances 

Specific probiotic strains have been studied and recommended for various uses and health conditions. Many people also choose to take a daily probiotic supplement for gut health maintenance or preventive measures.

You can also obtain probiotics from fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, and kombucha, depending on your needs and goals. 

It's important to choose probiotics made according to high-quality manufacturing standards to ensure they're protected from light, moisture, heat, and stomach acid. 

Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics: What's the difference?

Digestive enzymes and probiotics both help with digestion and overall health, but their functions are different. Determining which of the two is best for you can be confusing, especially since the signs indicating you need them may overlap. 

To summarize where their roles differ, digestive enzymes are microscopic proteins responsible for breaking down food molecules into their usable components. Probiotics are living bacterial organisms that reside in the gut microbiome and support digestive and overall health. 

Digestive enzymes and probiotics work in different but complementary ways, and they may function even better together. 

Probiotics can produce or promote the production of certain kinds of digestive enzymes. For example, the Lactobacillus family of probiotics can produce lactase (which is responsible for breaking down lactose from dairy products), while the Bifidobacterium species can help break down fiber

Enzymes can also help probiotics by ensuring that food molecules are adequately broken down and not left to clutter up the gut. The digestive process, facilitated by enzymes, also helps feed the beneficial bacteria that live in the gut. 

In summary 

Efficient digestion and a healthy gut are essential for general health. Digestive enzymes and probiotics are among the most popular kinds of supplements used to support digestion and gut health. But while the two can complement each other, they perform very different functions. 

Digestive enzymes are tiny chains of proteins designed to break down food molecules into smaller components that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. These smaller components are then used for bodily functions and processes like metabolism. 

Specific digestive enzymes break down specific kinds of foods. When insufficient, food intolerances or sensitivities may occur, along with a variety of other possible symptoms. 

In contrast, probiotics are live bacterial organisms that help balance the gut microbiome's population and benefit digestive and overall health.* 

Understanding the difference between digestive enzymes vs. probiotics can help when determining which supplements to take and why. The two supplements also perform complementary functions and may pack even more of a healing punch when paired together. 

Ellie Ellias - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice