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Digestive Enzymes vs. Probiotics: Doctors Explain The Differences + Which Might Be Best For You

Uncomfortable digestive issues are the worst. And those on the hunt to alleviate stomach woes often turn to digestive enzymes or probiotics to help (after all, they both get a lot of hype).

While the two are different, both are vital to your digestive health.* And the best one for you depends on what's going on in your body. Here, we break down the difference between probiotics and digestive enzymes, plus how to figure out which is right for you.

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Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics: What do they have in common?

Simply put: Digestive enzymes and probiotics both help with GI health and aid in digestion.* They're also both found in supplemental form and naturally in certain foods. However, that's pretty much where the similarities end. 

Digestive enzymes vs. probiotics: What's different?

To understand how digestive enzymes and probiotics differ, it's helpful to define each one.

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that help balance your gut microbiome.* "Think of probiotics as your little helpers that restore order and help maintain harmony in your gut ecosystem,*" Vincent Pedre, M.D., previously told mbg. "You want them to outnumber and antagonize unwelcome bugs, including unfavorable bacteria, yeast, and parasites."

Digestive enzymes are nonliving proteins that speed up chemical reactions in your GI tract. They play a key role in properly breaking down food that your body can adequately absorb its nutrients. 

In other words, probiotics are living organisms that help maintain balance in your digestive tract,* while digestive enzymes are nonliving proteins that help your body properly absorb as many nutrients as possible.

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Benefits of probiotics

The most obvious benefit of probiotics is better gut health, but since the gut is related to so many other function, the health effects go way beyond digestive perks.* It's important to note that the health areas that probiotics support are specific to the types of strains and their clinical evidence.*

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Benefits of digestive enzymes

When your digestive system is functioning as it should, it naturally produces adequate amounts of digestive enzymes. There are three main categories:

  • Amylase: found in saliva and breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars.
  • Protease: found in the stomach and breaks down proteins into amino acids.
  • Lipase: produced in the pancreas and secreted into the small intestine; helps break down fats into fatty acids.
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But in some cases, the body doesn't make enough of these proteins, and digestion suffers as a result. Fortunately, digestive enzyme supplements offer some support.

The biggest benefit of digestive enzymes is that they help your body break down food better. This translates to better digestive health. You may experience less gas, bloating, and burping. You may also notice that your stomach feels lighter and emptier, like your food is actually moving through it rather than sitting there stagnant.

Digestive enzymes may also help improve food intolerances (not food allergies). Studies suggest that supplementing with digestive enzymes8 can be especially beneficial for anyone with lactose intolerance or those with pancreatic enzyme needs. There's also some preliminary research9 that a digestive enzyme, called AN-PEP, may help improve symptoms of gluten sensitivity.

How to know if you should take probiotics or digestive enzymes

So, how do you know which one to take? Or should you take both? The answer lies in your symptoms, or the signals your body is giving you. Some common clues you might need probiotics include:*

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Issues with regularity (not going often enough or going too often)
  • Skin issues
  • Mood challenges, like anxiousness and irritability
  • Need further support of your immune system
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"A disrupted gut flora opens the door for unfriendly microbes to step in and take over, creating all sorts of issues," Pedre explains. And when it comes to digestive enzymes, Amy Shah, M.D., says they're especially helpful for people who aren't producing adequate amounts of enzymes on their own or have low stomach acid.

Terry Wahls, M.D., previously told mbg that people with bloating and gas, especially those who are over the age of 50, are also more likely to be at risk for low production of enzymes and low stomach acid.

Even if you don't have a known digestive issue, the following are some signs you may need digestive enzymes:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Indigestion
  • Lack of bowel movement regularity
  • Frequent burping
  • Feeling especially full after a meal, a "brick in your stomach" feeling

It's also possible that both probiotics and digestive enzymes could be helpful. You can generally take digestive enzymes and probiotics together, since they do different things. In fact, it's often encouraged. Of course, you should always talk to your doctor before adding any new supplements to your routine.

The bottom line

While probiotics and digestive enzymes both help aid the digestive process,* they have vastly different functions. Probiotics help repopulate the gut with good bacteria, balancing the delicate ecosystem that plays a major role in your overall health.* Digestive enzymes break down the food you eat so your body can absorb as many nutrients as possible.

Depending on your specific health needs, you may need one or both of these targeted supplements. Because they work synergistically, you can take them both together, but make sure you get your doctor's OK first.

Lindsay Boyers
Lindsay Boyers
Certified holistic nutrition consultant

Lindsay Boyers is a holistic nutritionist specializing in gut health, mood disorders, and functional nutrition. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.

She has written twelve books and has had more than 2,000 articles published across various websites. Lindsay currently works full time as a freelance health writer. She truly believes that you can transform your life through food, proper mindset and shared experiences. That's why it's her goal to educate others, while also being open and vulnerable to create real connections with her clients and readers.