Some of the most common questions we receive at Humarian involve comparisons between probiotics and digestive enzymes. What’s the difference between them? Which one should I take? Aren’t they the same thing? While probiotics and digestive enzymes are both marketed as digestive supplements, they serve different functions in the body. Before we can answer these questions and determine which supplement fits your needs, let’s lay out the basics.
What are they?
Enzymes: Enzymes are proteins that accelerate chemical reactions in the body. They serve as catalysts for a huge range of processes that allow cells to grow and reproduce. Some chemical reactions in the body could technically proceed without enzymes, but they would take so much more time that life would no longer be sustainable. Some reactions in the body that take milliseconds with enzymes would take thousands or even millions of years without them! Digestive enzymes are a subset of enzymes that accelerate digestion in the body. They help us to break down larger molecules into smaller particles that can be more easily absorbed.
Probiotics: Probiotics are live bacteria that line the digestive tract and provide health benefits when consumed. Many people think of bacteria only as germs or as the gross stuff we remove when we wash our hands, but this is only true of a certain kind of bad bacteria. Probiotics are good bacteria that help to crowd out the bad bacteria that can make us sick. The benefits provided by probiotics can vary greatly depending on the strain. Some of the most common benefits are improved digestion, improved immune functions, improved nutrient absorption, and regulated bowel functions.
What’s the difference?
Digestive enzymes are “one-trick ponies”. They only do one thing, but they do it really well. We could not digest food without these enzymes to help us break it down. The body naturally produces digestive enzymes to help in digestion, but taking digestive enzyme supplements can still be a good idea for some people. Individuals that have digestive issues like IBS or acid reflux may benefit from supplemental digestive enzymes to accelerate digestion. They can also be helpful for those that struggle to digest gluten, lactose, or other proteins and sugars that are difficult to digest.
Unlike digestive enzymes, probiotics do not have a singular function. The term “probiotics” encompasses a diverse range of bacterial strains, and as such, it also encompass a diverse range of functions. Some probiotics help to crowd out bad bacteria through competitive adhesion. Other strains help to reduce colic in infants, reduce diarrhea from rotavirus, and reduce the risk of NEC. There are even certain strains that possess enzymatic capabilities, such as B. bifidum’s ability to break down lactose in lactose intolerant individuals.
Which one should I take? If probiotics have enzymatic capabilities, isn’t that all I need?
As I mentioned earlier, digestive enzymes do their jobs really well. It’s great that certain probiotics can help with enzymatic functions, but if the primary issue someone needs help with is breaking down macronutrients, digestive enzymes are still the best way to go. If you’re looking to improve immune function, increase nutrient absorption, regulate bowel functions, protect the digestive tract, reduce the risk of leaky gut, or any number of other benefits provided by specific strains, look to probiotics.
It’s also important to remember that the benefits of digestive enzymes and probiotics are not mutually exclusive! You may benefit from one over the other, but for some, the best option may be to supplement with both. Think about your own digestive health when comparing probiotics and digestive enzymes.
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