No wonder gut health is such a hot topic — according to a recent report by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, digestive disease contributes to a total of 72 million doctor visits, hospitalizations or emergency admissions in the US alone.
So, there’s a good chance, at some point in your life, you’ve been told to take a probiotic or digestive enzyme as a dietary supplement. No, they’re not “quack remedies”. You may be consuming them already — just not in pill or powdered form. Depending on your health and lifestyle, upping the probiotic and enzyme factor in your diet could help prevent a swathe of digestive illness, or even relieve a few ongoing discomforts you thought you’d have to just live with.
What are probiotics?
Not all bacteria is bad for you. In fact, your body needs a balance of certain bacteria in order to work properly. When something — like sickness, medication, genetic predisposition, or the trappings of modern life — throws this balance out of whack, you may find yourself at risk of stomach upsets, chronic inflammation, depression, obesity, autoimmune disorders and a range of other illnesses.
What we call “probiotics” are naturally occurring good bacteria that help restore a healthy balance in the gut microbiome, aiding digestion and crowding out harmful or disease-causing organisms. Examples of probiotic bacteria include the immunoprotective and antimicrobial Lactobacillus acidophilus found in yoghurt; Bifidobacterium bifidum, whose digestive activities aid in the body’s absorption of minerals; and Streptococcus thermophilus, a friendly strain of strep that helps with lactose digestion.
You’ll find probiotics in fermented foods like kefir, yoghurt, miso, natto, sauerkraut, kombucha and even some craft beers. Interestingly, dark chocolate may also offer some probiotic effects — though not a probiotic itself, chocolate has been found to protect probiotic bacteria on their journey through the stomach and small intestine, resulting in higher populations of those good bacteria in the digestive tract.
Probiotic foods or supplements are generally safe for most people, but in some cases, they can trigger adverse effects. If you have a weakened immune system (through genetics, disease or medical treatment), or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor before adding new probiotics to your diet.
What are enzymes?
Enzymes are proteins (chains of amino acids) that drive chemical reactions in the body. It seems just about all our internal functions use enzymes, from flexing our fingers to adding two numbers. And, according to a recent study in mice, maybe even feeling full after a meal.
Digestive enzymes, produced in the pancreas, help break down food into simpler compounds, making them more available for the body to process and absorb. The major enzyme groups you might have heard of include proteases and peptidases that break down proteins, lipases that break down fats, and amylases that break down starches and sugars. You’ll typically find one or more of these types in varying quantities in commercially produced supplements. And Well.org is particularly impressed with Masszymes.
Do enzymes actually work? The chemistry certainly does. However, the ones you swallow might not hang around long enough to do any good. Like other proteins, enzymes could easily end up getting digested themselves. To get around this problem, manufacturers may design their supplements with an enteric coating, making it more likely the enzymes will make it past the initial digestive process.
Enzyme therapy already exists for conditions such as pancreatic insufficiency and lactose intolerance. Some high-performance athletes and bodybuilders take specially formulated enzymes to increase the bioavailability of protein for muscle repair. For everyone else, enzymes may be helpful in relieving a host of digestive issues or general discomfort, but you may still get the same benefits for a lot cheaper with just a few adjustments to the food you eat. Be sure to talk to your doctor before making major changes to your diet.