Enzymes, Probiotics & Prebiotics…What’s the Difference?
More and more research is suggesting that the state of your digestive health has broader impacts on both your physical and emotional well-being. Everything from weight loss, to heart health, mood and concentration appears to have ties to how well your body is able to absorb vital nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Along with these discoveries, the prevalence of supplements aimed at optimizing digestion are on the rise. Even food manufacturers and distributors have started to expound the natural digestion aiding qualities of their food. But what are all of these gut-optimizing products doing and how are they doing it?
Let’s take a look at three of the most popular gut aids: Enzymes, Probiotics and Prebiotics. What are they, what do they do, and what types of issues do they help resolve?
Most of us understand that food gets broken down into nutrients (amino acids, proteins, fatty acids, cholesterol and carbohydrates, vitamins minerals etc.) through the process of digestion. Digestive enzymes are small proteins that are responsible for breaking down specific food molecules into nutrients.
The enzymes your body produces naturally are primarily created by the pancreas and then released into the small intestines. From there, they go to work breaking down food molecules so that they can be absorbed by the body.
Enzyme supplements work in much the same way, targeting particular food molecules, breaking them down and allowing them to be absorbed by the body. Supplements can be specific, like lactase which targets lactose (the ingredient in milk that creates lactose intolerance) or general, targeting a variety of different food molecules.
A variety of issues ranging from aging and chronic stress to diseases such as pancreatitis, Crohn’s or Celiac diseases can create enzyme deficiencies. Enzyme supplements, when taken with food, can help to target specific issues. For example, the enzyme lactase can help to relieve symptoms created by lactose intolerance. A multi-enzyme can also help to reduce broader issues such as chronic inflammation, bloating or infections such as Candida.
Probiotics are beneficial live microorganisms (bacteria and yeast) that exist in the digestive tract along with some foods and supplements.
Although there is still much research to be done on the precise benefits of specific strains of bacteria, overall probiotics help move food through your gut, helping you absorb nutrients and fight infection. Other research has suggested that probiotics help to improve particular skin conditions, urinary and vaginal health, immunity, and oral health.
A number of factors contribute to probiotic deficiencies including antibiotics, stress, particular sugars, grains and food storage and refrigeration practices. Symptoms of probiotic deficiency range from digestive issues, skin irritations, candida, autoimmune diseases and frequent colds and flus. Essentially, a lack of good bacteria creates an imbalance allowing your gut to become a breeding ground for bad bacteria, yeasts, viruses, fungi and parasites.
Sometimes simply avoiding things that negatively impact your gut flora isn’t possible, as is the case with many prescription medications. However, replenishing these beneficial microorganisms through supplementation and food selection can vastly improve this imbalance and alleviate many of the above symptoms entirely with effective maintenance.
Prebiotics are nondigestible, specialized plant fibres that feeds the beneficial bacteria and yeast in your intestines.
In essence, prebiotics act as a fertilizer for probiotics by helping them grow. Along with probiotic supplementation that adds good bacteria to the gut, prebiotics help to improve the ratio of good-to-bad bacteria in the gut.
Probiotics are fairly delicate. Both heat and stomach acid can kill them before they ever make it to the intestines. While supplements take measures to protect against these challenges, it can also be beneficial to nurture and grow the good bacteria already in the gut. Prebiotics on the other hand are heartier, surviving the digestive processes of the upper GI tract.
Prebiotic fibre is easily obtained through the consumption of whole fruits and vegetables. However, obtaining enough of these fibres (approximately 25 grams a day) can be a challenge for a variety of reasons. Prebiotic supplements help to round out food derived fibres usually in the form of powders that can be mixed with liquids or sprinkled on foods.
It is no secret that a healthy gut contributes to one’s overall wellbeing. However with new research showing just how important a healthy microbiome can be to other systems in the body, we are all learning how important it is to love your gut!