In an effort to improve their digestive health, Americans have become obsessed with friendly bacteria, otherwise known as probiotics. In addition, Americans spend over $2 billion each year on probiotic supplements, while sales of fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, and sauerkraut are on the rise. It is becoming popular to add probiotics to many other foods and beverages as well, including chocolate, nutrition bars, smoothies, and even orange juice. Marketing would have you believe that probiotics offer the answer to all gut issues. Without question they are an important consideration in wellness, but do they always represent the best natural solution?
The simple truth is that the digestive relief many people are looking for may be better achieved with the use of digestive enzymes. Probiotics and digestive enzymes are easily confused, as they are often lumped together into the same category—gut-health supplements, but they are actually different approaches for improving digestive health. The living organisms contained in probiotics can have beneficial effects on the body, but unlike enzymes, they do not break down foods to enable proper digestion and relief from digestive problems. In fact, they have very limited value in dealing with common digestive complaints like indigestion, gas, bloating, and food intolerances. The reason is simple: Probiotics do not digest food. You need digestive enzymes to accomplish this task. While probiotics are marketed as a cure-all for almost any digestive concern, in reality, the relief that people seek is often best obtained through supplementation with digestive enzymes.
Some digestive enzymes break down protein (proteases), and some break down fat (lipases), while others break down carbohydrates (amylases). Many more types of enzymes exist than these, but you will generally find these three included in most digestive-enzyme formulas.
Unlike probiotics, enzymes can make an immediate difference because enzymes actually help digest food; probiotics do not. Many people who have occasional digestive difficulties will feel relief after taking a digestive- enzyme supplement within minutes. Many digestive symptoms are simply the result of improper breakdown of food by enzymes. Supplemental enzymes work directly with the body to break down your meal properly.
While the body produces digestive enzymes, that may not be enough. Supplemental sources, largely derived from microbial and plant sources, can pick up the slack. In particular, fungal enzymes have become the most effective because they are very stable and can function within a wide range of pH levels.
The best digestive-enzyme supplements work at multiple pH levels. This effect is very important because the pH in the digestive tract can range from very acidic to mildly alkaline. For example, the pH in the stomach is 1.5 (acidic) and can be up to 8.3 in the intestines (alkaline).
As chief science officer of Enzymedica, I feel it is important for our products to do what they say they will do, and a significant piece of that puzzle is, producing supplements that contain the active ingredients that actually affect the complaint people take it for—whether that requires enzymes, probiotics, or a combination of the two.
Remember, knowledge is power when it comes to remedying your digestive-health issues. Knowing the right supplements for your gut health will help you in the long run, when it comes to maintaining good health. For more digestive health tips visit doctor murray.com and enzymedica.com.
Michael T. Murray, ND, is one of the leading authorities on natural medicine. He is a former faculty member and serves on the board of regents for Bastyr University in Seattle. He has written more than 30 books about natural approaches to health, including his most recent book, The Magic of Food, and is co-author of the Textbook of Natural Medicine, and the best-selling, The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine. He currently serves as chief science officer of Enzymedica.