Digestive supplements support gut health

Top 10 Supplements for Digestive Health

Who should take gut health supplements? If you've ever avoided a food because it "doesn't agree with you," had your lunch "repeat" on you, or are just someone who strives to be head-to-toe healthier, then the answer is you!

The good news is that supplements for gut health and digestion are generally safe and well tolerated. They can make our lives a whole lot more comfortable, too, by relieving occasional gastric and digestive discomforts.

Plus, the better your digestive tract health, the better your overall health will be—so let's explore our top 10 dietary supplements for your digestive system.

What do gut health supplements do?

Digestive health supplements vary from digestive enzymes supplements to probiotic supplements to everything in between. This is very much not a "one size fits all" category when it comes to gut health. So how to choose the right digestive supplement for your needs?

It helps to define what your goals are. There are four "pillars" of gut health that supplements can address:

  1. Digestion

    —In its simplest definition, digestion is the act where your body breaks down foods you eat into the macronutrients your body needs to function. It does so by using a combination of physical and chemical processes: chewing and swallowing your food is only the start! Then everything from digestive enzymes to probiotics gets involved. But sometimes digestion gets sidetracked or even derailed by stress, or a combination of foods or nutrients which it's not prepared for. When that happens, supplements for digestion can help—more on those in a bit!
  2. Probiotics

    —The word "probiotics" refers to helpful bacteria (as well as yeasts) that can be beneficial to your body. While there are probiotics that affect your skin, mood, and even your liver, these tiny organisms are most famous for their role within your digestive system, where they help you digest the food you eat. There are multiple types of probiotics, which can benefit your intestinal health (and immune, heart, and even throat health, for that matter) in different ways.
  3. Regularity

    —Regular bowel movements are an important part of gut health. In fact, like any system, keeping your digestive tract running "on schedule" is key to digestive health and comfort: aside from vacating intestinal waste, regularity helps relieve occasional gas and bloating.
  4. Digestive comfort

    —While digestive enzymes, probiotics and supplements for regularity are great supplements to maintain gut health, sometimes you need a little help dealing with specific occasional discomforts that arise from your digestive system, such as gas or bloating. Fortunately, there are nutrients available as digestive health supplements to relieve these complaints.

Top 10 Gut Health Supplements

Now that we've covered the different types of digestive health supplements, let's dig into the top 10 supplements in this category—whether you're seeking optimal digestion, a healthy microbiome, better regularity, or more comfort.

1. Digestive enzyme supplements

Digestive enzymes support healthy digestion by breaking down foods so your body can absorb the nutrients and eliminate the waste more easily. These come in handy if certain types of foods seem to "stay with you" longer than others, or simply don't agree with you. If you need a little help breaking down the meat in your diet, look for a protease, a class of enzymes that break down protein. Lactase helps you digest dairy products. Fat needs its own class of enzymes, too, called lipase.

And while eating leafy greens is good for you, cruciferous vegetables are among the most difficult for some of us to digest! Alpha galactosidase helps break down legumes (those are beans) and cruciferous veggies: cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage—notorious for causing occasional bloating, gas and generalized digestive discomfort. A good digestive enzyme supplement will have all these enzymes and more.

2. Probiotics

Probiotics are a must-have to maintain overall gut health. These beneficial bacteria help "crowd out" unwanted bacteria in your microbiome and help maintain an acidic pH in your digestive system. One way to support your beneficial intestinal bacteria is to eat probiotic-rich foods. But as an added measure, since everyday stress and other factors can impact the health and population size of your naturally occurring beneficial bacteria, probiotic supplements are a great way to keep those troops rallied, even in trying times! Added bonus: probiotic supplements help your body produce digestive enzymes.

It's important to understand that a good probiotic won't have just one (or even three) probiotic strains. There are several genus names to look for, but two stand out: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. In addition to aiding with digestion and nutrient breakdown, strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been clinically studied to help with stool frequency in adults who experience occasional constipation.

Just make sure you're taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement with clinically studied dosages—which will usually be in the billions of colony-forming units, or CFUs.

Digestive Enzymes or Probiotic Supplements: Which is Better?

If you're trying to choose between digestive enzyme supplements or a probiotic supplement, keep these helpful hints in mind:

  • Enzymes

    are chemical compounds, not living organisms. Enzymes help you break down the food you eat. Not every enzyme works on every food. So if you're seeking to support digestion and comfort after meals, then a digestive enzyme supplement is probably in order.
  • Probiotics

    are alive. They are part of your gut microbiome: the community of bacteria that live in your gut. Probiotic supplements contain specific strains that help keep that environment running smoothly, which plays a key role in optimum nutrient absorption as well as immune health. Some probiotic strains have additional health benefits, as well.

Long story short: you can take a probiotic supplement to support general, overall gut health. Digestive enzymes are a plus if you're looking to promote health, efficient digestion. Ultimately, digestive enzymes and probiotics work differently.

Good news: You can take a probiotic and digestive enzyme combo supplement—why not have the best of both worlds?

3. Bacteriophages

Bacteriophages aren't the same thing as probiotics. Yet, they play a similar role in your digestive system. These nucleic acids surrounded by a protein structure do target unwanted bacteria (each to a specific species of bacterium), while leaving the desired probiotic strains alone. This makes bacteriophages a great addition to a science-based probiotic supplement, because they help the probiotic strains in the formula thrive so they can 'do their job' more effectively.

4. Prebiotics

If you take a probiotic (whether it's combined with bacteriophages, digestive enzymes, or is another formula), adding a prebiotic supplement will help enhance the effectiveness of the probiotic supplement. That's because prebiotics are basically a food source (usually xylooligosaccharides, a kind of fiber) for the Bifidobacterium (a beneficial bacteria strain) in your gut.

Pro tip: When choosing a prebiotic, more is not better! In fact, too much prebiotic material can cause digestive discomfort. So pick a prebiotic supplement that's been clinically studied to work in smaller doses.

5. Fiber

Probably the best digestive health supplement for regularity is fiber. A fiber-rich diet (either from the foods you eat or as a supplemental product) is important for the digestive health process. Fiber helps with bowel movements by absorbing water into the stool (making it easier to pass).

Somewhat paradoxically, fiber also bulks stool so it's not "loose." And as we read earlier, fiber can even work as a prebiotic to feed those healthy probiotics—so they can aid everything from digestion to immune defenses. So fiber not only directly supports regularity, it also supports overall digestive health!

6. Vitamin C

Maybe you think of vitamin C as an immune system must-have—and you're not wrong. But that's not all it can do—that's why we're including it in this gut health lineup! If you suffer from occasional constipation, I have some good news for you: all it takes to get the digestive train moving again is a little vitamin C (paired with a little magnesium). That's right, vitamin C can act as an "osmotic agent," which is a fancy way of saying it draws water into your intestines, which in turn promotes regularity.

And unlike other regularity products, you also get the health benefits of both vitamin C (immune system, heart, skin health and more) and magnesium (great for the heart, brain and mood). And if you take your vitamin C + magnesium carbonate in powder form, you can vary your dosage to find the amount that's just right for you—no additional fiber required!

7. Dietary supplements for regularity

Some people don't need to wear a watch—their bathroom breaks let them know what time it is! While being that regular isn't necessary, an unpredictable schedule can lead to occasional discomfort. Yet again, a probiotic supplement is your go-to for this digestive health goal. We mentioned earlier that certain Bifidobacterium probiotic strains have been extensively studied for digestive health and regularity. It turns out there's a specific strain—Bifidobacterium lactis HN019—that can help relieve occasional constipation in 14 days of regular use. B. lactis HN019 also improves colonic transit speed: the time it takes food to move through your digestive system.

8. Bloating & occasional gas supplements

If you experience occasional gas or bloating after you eat, try a combination of artichoke, ginger and fennel seed (these three ingredients are among the top foods that fight bloating). Artichoke leaf combined with ginger root can "move food along" your digestive tract—and fennel seed extract inhibits the bacteria that create the gas in the first place.

But what if you don't feel like eating those for dessert? We don't blame you! Fortunately, there's a gut health supplement you can take instead—this artichoke leaf, ginger & fennel supplement works best when you swallow it before you eat.

9. Esophageal supplements

"Oh my esophagus" said no one, ever, but that feeling that a food is "repeating" on you is indeed an uncomfortable esophagus! Fortunately, you can cool things down with a combination of licorice and calcium. Chewable calcium carbonate is well-known for its ability to maintain pH in the esophagus, and licorice root extract supports a healthy inflammatory response to support gastric health.

10. Zinc L-carnosine

Your stomach is filled with digestive juices. A thin layer of mucus protects the lining of your stomach from its own contents—otherwise, you start digesting the stomach wall. When this mucus layer gets thin or disappears, it can lead to discomfort. You can help keep this protective layer, well, protective, by supplementing with zinc and L-carnosine combined with an inert form L. reuteri bacteria, which binds to bacteria that can affect your stomach wall, rendering them harmless.

Colon cleanses: Are they worth it?

You've probably heard of colon cleanses: A product that purports to "cleanse" your colon—usually by moving a whole bunch of bulking agent through your digestive tract relatively quickly. So, are they safe? These products can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Still, there are many people who swear by such things, but the science to support their health benefit is inconclusive at best. Here's why: it's your liver and kidneys that do most of the cleansing your body needs (this process is called detoxification).

Plus, helpful bacteria in your colon detoxify food waste, and the lining of your intestines regenerate quickly—so the chances that anything harmful will "build up" in there are slim (at least if you're staying regular by eating lots of fiber and maybe taking a supplement or two).

Generally speaking, a healthy lifestyle and nutritious, well-balanced diet are better for your colon than a "cleanse"—but if you want to try it and your doctor says it's a good idea (or has specifically requested you do one in order to facilitate a medical procedure) then go for it.

Which digestive supplement is right for you? Take this digestive supplement quiz.

References

By: John Gawley, Health & Wellness Writer

John Gawley graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in English before beginning his career as a technical writer, copy writer and content manager. John has extensive experience in the health and wellness field, and he is the Senior Copywriter at Life Extension.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD