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If you’ve ever seen a Yakult advert in your life, chances are that you’re familiar with terms such as “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria” which divide your natural gut bacteria into camps locked in an eternal war inside your body.
Yes, our digestive systems need a little assistance sometimes, whether they’re trying to digest food or keep our microbiome (i.e. the fighting flora in our guts) healthy and balanced.
Lots of things can negatively affect the conditions in people’s guts, including stress, a poor diet, too much dairy, IBS, and lactose intolerance. While the dairy isn’t an issue for us vegans, stress and malnutrition are rampant in the modern world, with 1 million Americans being absent from work due to stress every day.
Many people turn to probiotics and digestive enzymes to help their body out, but what’s the difference between them anyway? Do you know when to take digestive enzymes and when you might be better served by probiotics? Let’s take a little look in closer detail.
Digestive enzymes are proteins held together by amino acids which are naturally scattered throughout your belly, mouth, pancreas, and small intestine.
They are designed to help you break down and digest food properly, making it easier to absorb the nutrients found in various foods and provide your body with energy.
The health benefits of digestive enzymes include putting less stress on your gastrointestinal tract, helping your body to break down lactose, improving conditions such as IBS, and assisting with constipation. (1)
There are some suggestions that these enzymes can help with weight loss, but it’s more in the sense that they help you to better absorb the nutrition of a healthy diet.
So they kind of help with weight loss in a roundabout way, but not directly.
Their main function revolves around breaking down our food, but you may already have a healthy level of these enzymes in your body anyway.
If your body still makes the digestive enzymes you need, then taking a supplement of them won’t help or hurt your health—it’ll just lighten your wallet.
- Dr. Ken Berry, Family Physician
Possible side effects of digestive enzymes supplements include breathing problems, swelling around your mouth/throat, itching, tightness in the chest and wheezing. You may also experience belly pain, gas, and skin problems such as rashes. It’s rare for people to be allergic to these enzymes, but it does happen.
You should take digestive enzymes with food, preferably when eating a large meal. The job of these enzymes is to break down your food, so taking them on an empty stomach is a little bit pointless. I always try to take them before eating a nutritious meal filled with vitamins, fiber, and minerals to aid you in digestion.
The best digestive enzymes are the ones that best suit your diet and the kinds of macronutrients and foods that you eat the most.
There are 3 main types of digestive enzyme which you need to concern yourself with – proteases, lipases, and amylases. (2)
There are also more specific enzymes such as lactase, which breaks down the sugars in whole milk, but that obviously doesn’t concern us.
You can get more digestive enzymes by taking supplements or by eating more foods which are naturally rich in these enzymes.
Pineapple is a common recommendation due to its protease content, in addition to papaya, mango, raw honey, bananas, avocados, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kiwifruit, and ginger.
See my recommended list of the Best Vegan Digestive Enzymes.
Probiotics are the “good bacteria” that live in your gut, helping you to maintain a healthy balance of "good" and "bad" bacteria in your gut. (3)
These bacteria can help with conditions such as food intolerances and IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), promoting all around good gut health.
The health benefits of probiotics include reduced indigestion, reduced diarrhea, fewer symptoms of IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and better overall gut health.
These microorganisms help you to digest food by positively affecting the nerves that control gut movement, making it easy to efficiently send food through your digestive system.
There is also research suggesting that probiotics help with skin conditions like eczema.
This is because the friendly microorganisms found in probiotics help to strengthen the functions of the immune system, improving your natural immune health and ability to ward off illnesses while improving your digestion.
Side effects of taking probiotics most commonly include stomach pain, gas, and bloating. (4) It is thought that this is due to the new balance of bacteria in your body, and these symptoms usually die down as your body adjusts over the course of 1 week or so. Depending on the strain of microorganism, some probiotics can also cause headaches and allergic reactions.
You should take probiotics in the morning, 30 minutes before you consume any food, with a glass of water. If we take them on an empty stomach, we give them a better chance to survive because our digestive tracts are less active and there’s less stomach acid around to go on a probiotics killing spree.
Read the full article: The Best Time To Take Probiotics
The best probiotics from natural sources are fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, kombucha, kimchi, pickles, and natto.
These vegan foods all contain natural probiotics due to the fermentation process.
According to recent research, the strains of microorganism which are thought to be probiotic “good bacteria” include:
Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Enterococcus, Streptococcus, Pediococcus, Leuconostoc, Bacillus, and Escherichia coli.
You were able to pronounce everything, right?
You can get more probiotics in your diet by taking probiotic supplements or by increasing the amount of probiotic-rich foods in your diet. Fermented foods are naturally high in probiotics - sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, kombucha, kimchi, pickles, and natto are good vegan sources of probiotics.
See my recommended list of the Best Vegan Probiotic Supplements.
The difference between digestive enzymes vs probiotics is that the enzymes are natural proteins which are found throughout your body, whereas probiotics are “good” bacteria which are concentrated in our digestive tracts.
So are digestive enzymes the same as probiotics? The answer is no. Although they both boost digestive health, enzymes are there to break down food while probiotics are there to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut.
You can also watch this video to know more about the difference of those two.
Generally speaking, digestive enzymes do not kill probiotics, despite some reports that suggest this to be true.
In the gut, where [probiotics are] colonizing and they’re having their families and they’re in the right environment, they’re making tens of thousands of enzymes with no problem at all.
- David Barton, Director of Education for Enzymedica
Digestive enzymes and probiotics are not necessarily “better” than one another – it all depends on your health, your nutrition and your intakes of vitamins/minerals.
Probiotics and enzymes have a symbiotic relationship, meaning that they work to benefit your gut health and body in different ways.
If you have a natural enzyme deficiency or you’re often feeling sluggish, bloated, and having problems with indigestion, then consider supplementing enzymes in your diet.
If you’re experiencing gas, IBS, constipation, yeast infections or skin problems regularly, then you should look at introducing more probiotics into your diet.
Really, whether we’re vegan, veggie, or omnivores, we should all aim to get both of these digestive aids inside our bodies – they’re the ultimate dream team when they’re working side by side.