There’s a lot of confusion out there about enzymes and probiotics: What are they? Where do I get them? Do they do the same things? And which one should I be taking?
It’s true that both enzymes and probiotics help to promote digestive and immune health, but they go about this in different ways, and they each have their own benefits. Understanding the differences between the two will help you to figure out which one might be beneficial for you.
What are digestive enzymes?
Enzymes are the super-efficient worker bees of your digestive system. Their job is to facilitate the chemical breakdown of foods, so that your body can send its nutrients off to cells to be converted into usable energy. Different enzymes work on different types of foods. Protease breaks down proteins, lipase breaks down fats, cellulase breaks down fibres and amylase breaks down starches. There are many more, but these are the four main types that are often focused upon when talking about enzymes and enzyme supplementation.
Your body creates digestive enzymes in the salivary glands, stomach, pancreas and small intestine, where most of the digestion takes place. But they’re also plentiful in raw foods. In fact, many raw fruits and vegetables contain plant enzymes that assist in breaking down that particular food. This is true of raw milk as well. It contains lactase, the enzyme essential to breaking down milk sugars.
Unfortunately, when food is cooked — or in the case of milk, pasteurised — these enzymes are destroyed by the heat. They are extremely sensitive to their environment and can begin to denature at temperatures as low as 40 degrees Celsius (1). Without the necessary dietary enzymes coming in, your body must work twice as hard to produce the enzymes on its own. This consumes energy, which means you have less to go toward other bodily functions, like your immune system.
Digestive enzymes are also sensitive to the pH balance in your body. If their environment becomes too alkaline or too acidic, they may not be able to carry out their work as efficiently, or they could cease functioning altogether. This has become an issue, as we continue to consume more acidic foods, upsetting our body’s natural pH balance.
When the body can’t produce enough of a certain enzyme, the result is food intolerance. One of the most common enzyme deficiencies is lactose intolerance, which results from a shortage of lactase in the system. But it’s also possible to have intolerances to other things, like fatty foods. Deficiencies can cause problems, including occasional bloating or indigestion, bowel problems and abdominal discomfort.
Enzyme deficiency can also lead to a depressed immune system. It prevents your body from absorbing its food efficiently, so your body systems, including your immune system, aren’t getting as many nutrients. This makes it difficult for them to function as they should. Another issue is that undigested food can accumulate in your intestines, which creates an ideal breeding ground for disease, especially if your body is low on good bacteria (see the section on Probiotics below).
In order to avoid putting such a strain on your body’s digestive system, you should make sure you’re getting an adequate supply of enzymes from your diet. Some common sources are:
Raw fruits and vegetables
Fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.)
Though it is possible to get enzymes from animal-based foods, you should choose plant-based forms whenever possible. One study showed that plant- and microbe-based enzymes were up to 5,000 percent more active than the same types of enzymes derived from animal sources, meaning that they do their job much more efficiently. There’s also some evidence that plant-based enzymes can tolerate a wider range of pH without suffering any ill effects (2).
What are probiotics?
Unlike digestive enzymes, probiotics are living things — bacteria, to be specific. They are found throughout your digestive tract, especially in your intestines. Probiotics help to keep the bad bacteria that enters your body in check, and they assist in promoting a well-functioning digestive system. Certain probiotics even produce those helpful digestive enzymes that break down your foods.
Probiotics aren’t produced by the body like enzymes are, so they must be consumed through the diet. They can be found in foods like:
Apple cider vinegar
Make sure any supplements you buy say that they are viable until the end of the shelf life (as opposed to viable at the time of manufacture), or look for “live and active cultures” on yogurt and cheese products. This is essential, because it tells you that the probiotics you’re consuming are still alive. If they’re not, they won’t do you any good.
There are many things that can cause the balance of your gut bacteria to be thrown off. The most well-known cause is antibiotics. Antibiotics kill off all bacteria, good and bad, and many doctors now recommend that you take a probiotic with your antibiotic to replenish your depleted stores of good bacteria. But that’s not the only cause of imbalance. Other causes include:
So how do you know if you need to introduce more probiotics into your diet? The symptoms are often similar to those of enzyme deficiency, and can include, but are not limited to: occasional bloating, gas or heartburn, and bowel movement issues, as well as some skin conditions and yeast infections.
If you have any of these symptoms, you may want to think about adding a probiotic supplement or eating more probiotic-rich foods to see if it helps.
There are many strains of probiotics out there, and the healthiest diets will incorporate several, because they all provide different benefits. The two most popular types are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Probiotics are a relatively new field of study, so science isn’t yet sure exactly what conditions they may assist with, but research is being conducted on the effects of both Lactobacillus3 and Bifidobacteria (4). There are several strains of each of these, and most probiotic supplements will contain one or more of them.
Like digestive enzymes, probiotics can be sensitive to their environments, especially to heat. Many probiotic supplements require refrigeration to keep the bacteria at a stable temperature, so they are not killed off before they enter your body and begin their work. If you are purchasing a probiotic supplement, make sure you read the label carefully to see if your product requires refrigeration.
Light can also degrade probiotics, which is why most of them are stored in opaque containers. Be careful not to leave these pills out in direct sunlight, as it could render them ineffective. Store them in a cool, dark place.
Which should I take?
Enzymes and probiotics perform similar functions in the body, but there may be instances where you will benefit more from one or the other. For example, if you’ve recently finished a round of antibiotics, probiotics will serve you better than digestive enzymes. On the other hand, if you’re lactose intolerant, you will probably see more improvement from adding a digestive enzyme supplement containing lactase, as this would help your body to break down the sugars in milk.
While they each have their own benefits, you don’t necessarily have to choose between them. Both digestive enzymes and probiotics support healthy digestive and immune systems, and there are many foods that contain both, including kefir and fermented vegetables. We recommend trying to get as many enzymes and probiotics from natural food sources as possible, though, of course, this isn’t always easy to do in today’s world.
If you’re not sure what your best option is, talk to your doctor or natural health professional about your options. They may be able to help you decide which is best for your specific circumstances.
Copeland, Robert A. (2000). Enzymes: A Practical Introduction to Structure, Mechanism, and Data Analysis. Wiley-VCH; 248-249.
Ianiro G., Pecere S., Giorgio V., Gasbarrini A., Cammarota G. (2016) Digestive Enzyme Supplementation in Gastrointestinal Diseases. Current Drug Metabolism. 17(2): 187-193.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018). Lactobacillus. National Institute of Health. Retrieved from medlineplus.gov
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2018). Bifidobacteria. National Institute of Health. Retrieved from medlineplus.gov