The digestive system has been in the news a lot lately and it seems like we hear something about ‘gut health’ on a weekly basis. Health professionals everywhere are touting the benefits of an active bacterial population inside our digestive tract and recommending everything from fiber to digestive enzymes to probiotic supplements. With all the information out there, and more research being done every day, it’s hard to know what is the best digestive health product for you? You eat right and exercise, but could you be doing more? And navigating the digestive health section in the supplement aisle may leave you feeling more confused than when you got there. In this article, we will break down the basics so you can take your gut health into your own hands.
Are probiotics the superior digestive health product for you?
Probiotics are live bacteria that are introduced into the digestive system, populate the colon, and confer health benefits to the body as a whole. Don’t worry! Your gut is already populated with bacteria that help to digest your food. The bacteria in your colon may also:
- Help you fight off sickness, infections, and allergies
- Treat or prevent gas and diarrhea
- Make essential nutrients, including some B vitamins and vitamin K
- Improve the health of your skin
Probiotics are found naturally in some foods, especially fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha. But many people choose to take a probiotic supplement as well, especially since you’d have to eat a lot of those foods to equal the benefits of the probiotic supplement.
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When should you take probiotic supplements?
You may need a probiotic supplement if:
- You will be traveling a far distance from home. You should begin taking a probiotic 45-60 days prior to your travel date to build up your good bacteria and prevent travelers’ diarrhea.
- You are currently or have recently been on an antibiotic. You can absolutely take a probiotic supplement while you are still on an antibiotic. Just separate them by about two hours. Your body may take as long as six to eight weeks to recover after antibiotic therapy.
- You have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Regular courses of probiotics, especially Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been shown to improve the symptoms of IBS.
- You are prone to bouts of diarrhea or constipation.
- You suffer from minor food allergies.
- You would like to boost your overall immunity.
Probiotics are prescribed in colony-forming units, or CFU’s, and doses can range from one to 50 billion CFU’s. As I’m sure you can deduce, the higher the number of CFU’s, the more bacteria you’ll actually get by taking that supplement. However, if your probiotic does not contain a shelf-stable prebiotic, then the probiotics will go dormant and die which tremendously weaken the benefits. So the probiotic supplement you purchased with 50 billion will have drastically less living probiotics than when it left the manufacturing facility. Especially if the probiotic is near it’s expiration date.
Some people have negative effects of taking large numbers (20+ billion CFU’s) of probiotics every day. For some people, taking a dose this large can actually harm your health, rather than boosting it.
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If you’re generally pretty healthy and are considering starting a probiotic supplement, it isn’t necessary to take a huge dose. A good-quality probiotic with several different strains should aid in boosting your health. If you feel you need a larger dose of probiotics (i.e. 20 billion CFU’s or more), talk with your nutritionist or registered dietitian for a brand recommendation.
Are digestive enzymes the superior digestive health product for you?
Digestive enzymes are chemical agents produced naturally in our bodies that break the food we eat down into the nutrients that we can absorb and use. In other words, if we eat a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, digestive enzymes are responsible for breaking the meatballs into amino acids, the noodles into simple sugars, and the oil or butter into fatty acids and cholesterol, as well as releasing all the vitamins, minerals, and other components.
When should you take digestive enzyme supplements?
Some people (such as those with pancreatic disorders, Crohn’s disease, or Celiac disease) need to take digestive enzyme supplements in order to properly digest and absorb their food. If you don’t have one of these chronic conditions, you may need digestive enzymes if you are experiencing:
- Fullness after only a few bites of food
- A feeling as though your food sits in your stomach
- Gas and bloating right after a meal
- Undigested food in your stool
- Floating stools or stools that leave oily-looking marks when flushed (this is a sign that your body is not digesting fat properly)
When choosing a digestive enzyme supplement, look for one that is sourced from plants (i.e. fungus). These seem to be the most stable and effective. If you’re taking a multivitamin, get one with an digestive enzyme blend. If not, look for multiple types of enzymes, including proteases (these break down proteins), lipases (these break down fats), and amylases (these break down carbs). Start off with a low dose, always taken with meals, and see how you do. Depending on how well your body reacts and how efficient or inefficient it is at producing its own enzymes, you may need to increase your dose. For more information, check out this awesome post about digestive enzymes.
Whether probiotics or digestive enzymes are the superior digestive health product for you, your symptoms should begin to improve (probiotics can take six to eight weeks to make a difference; digestive enzymes will start to work more quickly). If they don’t, you may need to change something. If this is the case, have a chat with your nutritionist or registered dietitian, who will be able to help you figure out exactly what your gut needs to function at its best and keep you healthy.