What's the difference between probiotics and digestive enzymes?

Kerry Beeson BSc (Nut. Med.) Nutritional Therapist

In short

You may or may not be aware that digestive enzymes, such as lipase, protease, amylase and lactase, are specific proteins that are produced in the GI tract to break down our food into digestible nutrients that can be readily absorbed and utilised by the body.

food group circle

Proteins, fats and carbohydrates require specific digestive enzymes to break them down

But you may be interested to learn that probiotics are not produced by the body at all. They are strains of bacteria that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has defined as 'live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host'.

In depth

Digestive enzymes are found in various locations throughout the gastrointestinal tract; including in the saliva, the stomach acid, the pancreatic juice and the body's intestinal secretions. Probiotics on the other hand, are more heavily concentrated in the small and large intestines.

woman eating salad

The action of chewing stimulates digestive enzyme production

Digestive enzymes include proteases and peptides, which break down proteins, and lipases which break down fats. In addition to our own endogenous production of digestive enzymes, they can also be extracted from foods and taken as supplements, which may be useful for people with food intolerances. However, some sources suggest that the body can become dependent on digestive enzyme supplements and as a result stop producing its own, therefore long term supplementation is not necessarily advised.

Probiotics naturally produce digestive enzymes

Probiotics actually have the capability of producing many different types of enzymes1. Whilst they use them primarily to degrade organic materials to use as their own food source, this additional source of enzymes is also of benefit to human health and digestion. Most food 'macromolecules' (such as fats, proteins, and starches) require several different enzymes to completely break them down. Probiotics produce the correct 'teams' of enzymes to fully break down each food 'polymer', or macromolecule, into its basic building blocks. Due to this ability to fully degrade the individual components of our food, it is thought that probiotic bacteria could potentially be helpful with enzyme deficiency conditions, such as lactose intolerance. Certainly, many of the Lactobacilli strains enhance the activity of lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose in dairy products)2.

Whilst digestive enzyme supplementation may not be advisable on an ongoing basis, please be reassured that probiotics are very safe for ongoing use. The adult body does not produce its own probiotics, so there is no risk of addiction or dependency when supplementing them. For this reason, probiotics, or perhaps certain herbal or Ayurvedic preparations that stimulate digestion, may be the better approach long-term.

For more in-depth information about probiotics, see: What are Probiotics?


1. Bairagi, A. et al., (2002). 'Enzyme producing bacterial flora isolated from fish digestive tracts'. Aquaculture Int, 10(2): 109-121

2. Ojetti, V. et al., (2010). 'The effect of oral supplementation with Lactobacillus reuteri or tilactase in lactose intolerant patients: randomized trial.' Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci, 14(3): 163-70

Author: Kerry Beeson, BSc (Nut.Med) Nutritional Therapist.