The Differences Between Probiotics & Digestive Enzymes

Blueberries
Large bowl of yogurt with sliced almonds and fresh blueberries. (Image: Kati Molin/iStock/Getty Images)

The human digestive tract relies upon many different chemicals -- and in some cases, organisms -- to function normally. Probiotics are organisms, many of them native to the human intestine, that help your digestive tract function. Digestive enzymes aid in digestive processes, which are the reactions that break food molecules into smaller pieces prior to absorption. While both are essential for digestion, several factors make probiotics and digestive enzymes very different from one another.

Probiotics Are Alive

One of the major differences between digestive enzymes and probiotics is that probiotics are living organisms. They're typically bacterial, but there are also some yeast species that function as probiotics. Enzymes, on the other hand, aren't living, explain Drs. Mary Campbell and Shawn Farrell in their book "Biochemistry." Instead, enzymes are proteins, meaning they're large molecules made up of long chains of smaller molecules called amino acids. Your body produces enzymes in the cells of several different organs, including the stomach and pancreas, and secretes them as needed into the digestive tract.

Utility

While you benefit from the action of both digestive enzymes and probiotics, they do very different things in your body. Digestive enzymes break large nutritional molecules, including protein, carbohydrates and fats, into smaller molecules that your intestine can absorb. Enzymes break carbohydrates into pieces called monosaccharides; proteins into amino acids; and fats into two fatty acids and a monoacylglyceride, note Campbell and Farrell. Probiotics, on the other hand, have a variety of functions that changes with the species of organism. They can assist in vitamin and mineral absorption, alleviate lactose intolerance and produce vitamin K. They do not, however, break down food molecules you absorb.

Sources

You obtain digestive enzymes and probiotics from different sources. Your own cells produce digestive enzymes, and secrete them into the appropriate spaces in the gastrointestinal tract, explains Dr. Lauralee Sherwood in her book "Human Physiology." While it's possible to take a limited number of digestive enzymes to enhance digestion -- though it's rarely, if ever, necessary -- most digestive enzymes don't work as supplements. That's because enzymes are proteins, and if they're not meant to operate in the stomach, the stomach simply digests them like any other nutritional protein. On the other hand, you can obtain probiotics from food. Yogurt, which contains living probiotic microorganisms, is one common source of probiotics in the diet. Other fermented dairy and food products also contain high levels of probiotics.

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