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Probiotics vs. Digestive Enzymes

Gut health is a growing health craze for good reason. It’s a widespread problem affecting roughly one out of every three adults that contributes to millions of doctor visits in the United States every year. In an effort to improve their digestive health, Americans have become obsessed with probiotics or “friendly” bacteria. In addition to spending more than $2 billion each year on probiotic supplements, there is also a growing rise in sales of fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha and sauerkraut. It is becoming popular to add probiotics to many other foods and beverages as well including chocolate, nutrition bars, smoothies and juice.

Marketing would have us believe that probiotics are the answer to all gut issues, and there is no question that they are important considerations. But, do they always represent the best natural solution for common digestive complaints?

Improving gut health beyond probiotics

The simple truth is that the benefits that many people are looking for in improving their digestive complaints with probiotics are better achieved with the use of other natural digestive aids, especially enzymes. Probiotics are living organisms that can have beneficial effects on digestive health, but they are not very effective in dealing with many common digestive complaints like the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well as indigestion, gas, bloating and food intolerances. The reason is simple: probiotics do not digest food.

The real issue, and the underlining cause of most gut discomforts, is not digesting food properly. Most people compound the problem by choosing to simply block symptoms with an over-the-counter acid-blocking drug while others will jump on the probiotic bandwagon only to be disappointed. And, many others will simply suffer though the embarrassing and uncomfortable effects of improper digestion because they feel they have tried everything and nothing has worked. The reality is that they have not tried everything, they have just not tried the right product.

Lack of stomach acid and pepsin

Although much is said about hyperacidity conditions, a more common cause of indigestion is a lack of gastric acid secretion. Hypochlorhydria refers to deficient gastric acid secretion, while achlorhydria refers to a complete absence of gastric acid secretion. Lack of stomach acid affects more than 15 percent of the general population and more than 40 percent of people over 40.

The stomach’s optimal pH range for digestion is 1.5 to 2.5. The use of antacids and acid-blocker drugs will typically raise the pH above 3.5. This increase effectively inhibits the action of pepsin, an enzyme involved in protein digestion that can be irritating to the stomach. Although raising the pH can reduce symptoms, it blocks the effects of both hydrochloric acid (HCL) and pepsin on digestion.

HCL aids in protein digestion, activates pepsin, and it encourages the flow of bile and pancreatic enzymes. HCL also facilitates the absorption of many nutrients, including folate, vitamin B12, ascorbic acid, beta-carotene, iron, and some forms of calcium, magnesium and zinc.

The bottom line is that without HCL and pepsin, proper protein digestion and nutrient absorption will not occur. In addition, a lack of HCL and/or pepsin can adversely affect the gut’s microbial flora including the promotion of an overgrowth of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori that is associated with ulcer formation.

There are many symptoms and signs that suggest impaired gastric acid secretion, and a number of specific health conditions have been found to be associated with insufficient gastric acid output.

Common signs and symptoms of low gastric acidity

  • Bloating, belching, burning and flatulence immediately after meals
  • A sense of ‘fullness’ after eating
  • Indigestion, diarrhea or constipation
  • Multiple food allergies
  • Nausea after taking supplements
  • Itching around the rectum
  • Weak, peeling and cracked fingernails
  • Dilated blood vessels in the cheeks and nose
  • Acne
  • Iron deficiency
  • Chronic intestinal parasites or abnormal flora
  • Undigested food in stool
  • Chronic candida infections
  • Upper digestive tract gassiness

Health conditions associated with low gastric acidity

  • Addison’s disease
  • Asthma
  • Celiac disease
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Eczema
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Graves disease
  • Chronic auto-immune disorders
  • Hepatitis
  • Chronic hives
  • Lupus erythematosis
  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Osteoporosis
  • Pernicious anemia
  • Psoriasis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Rosacea
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Thyrotoxicosis
  • Hyper- and hypothyroidism
  • Vitiligo

One of the popular dosing strategies of HCL products is a challenge method:

—Begin by taking one capsule with meals. If this does not aggravate symptoms, at every meal after that of the same size take one more tablet or capsule. (One at the next meal, two at the meal after that, then three at the next meal.)

—Continue to increase the dose until reaching seven capsules or when you feel warmth in your stomach, whichever occurs first. A feeling of warmth in the stomach means that you have taken too many capsules for that meal, and you need to take one less tablet for that meal size. It is a good idea to try the larger dose again at another meal to make sure that it was the HCL that caused the warmth and not something else.

—After you have found that the largest dose that you can take at your large meals without feeling any warmth, maintain that dose at all of meals of similar size. You will need to take less at smaller meals.

—When taking a number of capsules, it is best to take them throughout the meal.

—As your stomach begins to regain the ability to produce the amount of HCL needed to properly digest your food, you will notice the warm feeling again and will have to cut down the dose level.

Digestive enzymes to the rescue

While probiotics are marketed as a cure-all for digestive complaints, the relief that people are seeking to find is best obtained through supplementation with digestive enzymes. Unlike probiotics, enzymes can make an immediate difference in digesting a meal. That is because enzymes actually help digest food, probiotics do not. Many people who have occasional digestive difficulties such as indigestion, bloating or gas will often feel a relief from taking a digestive enzyme supplement in minutes. This fast action is because the enzymes are directly working to break down a meal. Many digestive symptoms are simply the result of improper breakdown of food by enzymes.

While our own body produces digestive enzymes, it may not be enough especially in older adults. Aging leads to actual structural changes in the pancreas as well as reduced output of digestive enzymes, often leading to impaired digestion and symptoms ranging from minor gas, pain, nausea and bloating to severe malabsorption and malnutrition.

Digestive enzymes can be derived from animal, plant or microbial sources. Of these three sources, enzymes derived from bacteria and fungi are emerging as the most effective source because they are very stable, resist damage caused by the stomach acid, and can function within a wide range of pH levels. For example, while the pancreatic enzyme trypsin and chymotrypsin are only effective in a pH environment of eight to 10, some digestive enzyme supplements contain blends of microbial-derived enzymes that can be effective throughout the entire pH range. Since the pH of the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract varies from very acid to alkaline, it is important to choose produce that utilize technology to carefully select variants (isoenzymes) within each digestive enzyme category (e.g., proteases, amylases, and lipases) to allow the mixture of these isoenzymes to be effective throughout the entire GI tract.

These more advanced enzyme preparations have ushered in a whole new era for digestive enzymes. For best results, digestive enzymes are most often recommended to be taken before meals or early on in the meal.

Final comments

Just a reminder, in most cases it is not food that is causing digestive symptoms; it is the improper digestion of that food. So, the first goal in trying to improve gut symptoms is to focus on improving digestion. If the bloating, gas, indigestion occurs within the first 30 to 45 minutes of eating, go with Betaine HCL. If it occurs more than 45 minutes after eating, go with digestive enzymes first. VR

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