How many brains do you have? If you answered 2, congratulations! You're right. And chances are, you already know the location of this ‘second brain’: your gut. A growing, deeper understanding of the gut’s inner workings reveals that it's responsible for much more than the elaborate grind of digestion. In fact, scientists have discovered that the gut microbiome affects nearly every aspect of health, including energy levels, hormone balance, sex drive, and even risk of chronic diseases ranging from obesity and rheumatoid arthritis to clinical depression and Parkinson’s (1, 2, 3, 4).
So, is it any wonder why health-conscious consumers are gobbling up all the digestive health products (e.g. probiotics, prebiotics, digestive enzymes, kombucha, and antacids) they can get their hands on? Although, this phenomenon begs the question: are there any overlaps between the products? In other words… Could you be spending more than you should in your quest to improve your gut health? To help you find out, here's a deep dive and comparison of the 2 most popular gut health supplements around: digestive enzymes and probiotics.
What Are Digestive Enzymes?
Digestive enzymes are proteins your body produces – and uses to break down the foods that you eat into small enough molecules that can be absorbed through the digestive tract. Without these enzymes, even the nutrients found in your favorite superfoods (e.g. chia seeds, quinoa, and wheatgrass) would go to waste. While most of your digestive enzymes come from your pancreas, your mouth, stomach, and small intestine also help produce some (5). It's important to note that there is a variety of digestive enzymes, each responsible for breaking down a specific type of food.
That said, you don't have to get bogged down with the details. All you need to know are the 3 main digestive enzyme categories: proteases (which break down proteins), lipases (which digest fats), and amylases (which break down starches and sugars) (6).
What Are Probiotics?
A little bit of background to aid your understanding: your gut is teeming with about 300 to 500 different species of bacteria and/or yeast in your digestive tract. While some of these microorganisms are harmful to your health (i.e. 'bad'), many are incredibly beneficial by keeping your 'bad' bacteria in check. When you have a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut, it's called equilibrium – and your body will be functioning as optimally as possible. The problem, though, is that many of us struggle to achieve this balance; our modern lifestyle, with its unhealthy dietary choices, elevated stress levels, and over-reliance on antibiotics, promotes the overgrowth of harmful gut bacteria. And this throws our health out of whack (7, 8, 9, 10).
This is where probiotics come in. Why? Well, that’s because probiotics are live microorganisms that add to – or restore – beneficial bacteria to your digestive tract (11, 12, 13). Now, don’t think that probiotics are only good for keeping the ‘bad’ bacteria population in check, either! Research also shows that probiotics also help with manufacturing vitamins (e.g. B and K), producing beneficial short-chain fatty acids, stimulating protective ‘mucin’ secretion in the gut lining, and breaking down cholesterol and toxins in the bowel (14, 15, 16, 17)!
Digestive Enzymes And Probiotics Perform Different Functions
By now, the difference between digestive enzymes and probiotics should be clear to you. They ultimately perform different functions in the body. Digestive enzymes are proteins that help your body break down the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in the foods you eat – so you can absorb and use the nutrients they contain for the countless biological tasks the body must carry out every day to be healthy and functional. On the other hand, you can think of probiotics as ‘good’ bacteria (and/or yeast) that keep ‘bad’ intestinal microorganisms in check in a healthy, balanced gastrointestinal tract.
How Do Digestive Enzymes Help Promote Gut Health?
Of course, the relationship between probiotics and gut health should be clear to you. However, what's less clear is how digestive enzymes (or a lack of them) can negatively impact your digestive health. Right. Here's the thing. Under normal circumstances, your digestive glands – in the mouth, stomach, small intestine, gallbladder, and pancreas – are pros at producing the enzymes you need to digest your food and absorb the nutrients properly. Now, imagine what happens if these glands don't work as well as they're supposed to. Like, in the case of cystic fibrosis or chronic pancreatitis (i.e. inflammation of the pancreas).
Large, undigested chunks of food are going to end up in your colon. This is a feast for the microorganisms present in your colon, who quickly begin to ferment the foods, causing excessive gas production (18). Thus, resulting in plenty of uncomfortable digestive symptoms, including bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea. Ultimately, digestive enzyme supplements are intended to help pick up the slack when your body just isn't producing enough enzymes to break down your foods completely.
Digestive Enzymes vs. Probiotics: Which Is Better?
Okay, so it's settled: digestive enzymes and probiotics are not the same things. But here comes another question. Which is better? In other words, which should you choose? Unfortunately, because they perform different functions in the body, there's no clear-cut answer. In most cases, you will have to get to the root cause of your digestive troubles (if any). If you find that a specific food is constantly triggering uncomfortable symptoms (e.g. lactose from dairy-based products), digestive enzymes are likely to offer more targeted relief. Conversely, if your digestive issues are due to an unhealthy gut – in general – then probiotics can help you regain microbiome balance in your second brain.
That said, it's crucial to realize that the benefits of digestive enzymes and probiotics are not mutually exclusive. Sure, they are different things and do different things, but they can also work together.
Digestive Enzymes Can Promote Gut Microbiome Health
Research shows that digestive enzymes may boost the health of the 'good' microorganisms that live in your gut microbiome (19). A 2018 study published in the Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, for instance, found that administering digestive enzymes to mice promoted the colonization of beneficial gut bacteria (20). Furthermore, a test-tube study published in the same year – from the journal, Oncotarget – suggested that pairing a probiotic supplement with digestive enzymes could help protect against changes in the gut microbiome caused by chemotherapy and a type of antibiotic (21).
Not to mention, both digestive enzymes and probiotics have also been shown to be effective in alleviating various symptoms of inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
Both Digestive Enzymes And Probiotics Can Alleviate IBS And IBD Symptoms
Take, for instance, this 2011 pilot study published in Frontline Gastroenterology (22). Researchers randomly assigned 69 patients with IBS to 2 groups: one was given pancrelipase (a digestive enzyme that breaks down fat), while the other was given a placebo before consuming trigger foods. The findings? Those treated with pancrelipase experienced a significantly greater improvement in their symptoms, including cramping, bloating, and abdominal pain. A 2017 study published in the European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences also found that IBD patients who’d supplemented with digestive enzymes reported significantly more improvements in their symptoms than those who’d only been given the standard treatment option (i.e. mesalamine) (23).
As for probiotics: look at the findings of a 2012 study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology (24). Scientists treated 214 IBS patients with the probiotic L. plantarum 299v. After 4 weeks, 78% of the patients scored the treatment (i.e. probiotic supplementation) as good or excellent for improving symptoms, particularly abdominal pain and bloating. What about IBD? Well, a 2004 German study published in BMJ Journals sheds some light on this (25). A group of 327 patients with a history of ulcerative colitis (UC) was randomly assigned to 2 groups: those who received mesalazine (i.e. the gold-standard treatment for IBD) and the other who received probiotics. After 1 year of treatment, the researchers found that the average time to remission and quality of remission was the same for both groups. Meaning? Probiotics may be as effective as traditional, gold-standard IBD medications!
Potency And Activity Are Of Paramount Importance
While these findings are undoubtedly exciting, you shouldn’t rush to get the first digestive enzyme and/or probiotic supplements you see on the shelves. An important thing to keep in mind is that both digestive enzymes and probiotics have to be active in your digestive tract to exert beneficial effects. Wait. What does that mean? Well, it just means that they have to survive the trip down your gastrointestinal tract – and that includes the harsh, acidic environment of your stomach (26, 27, 28). This is particularly tricky for probiotics. Remember? They're ultimately live microorganisms. And they have to remain alive until they reach your intestines.
Thankfully, you don't have to worry about your probiotics' viability with Dr. Danielle’s Daily Probiotics, which come with such a hardy natural outer shell that it’ll stay alive no matter what destructive factors you throw at it: heat, stomach acid, light, etc. Better still, because all of Dr. Danielle’s supplements are GMP-certified, you can also rest assured that Dr. Danielle’s Digestive Enzymes are simply one of the most potent you can find. Can you hear that? Your gut is begging for these supplements.