Around 14% of American adults suffer from constipation, which translates into 3.2 million doctor visits each year.
While many over-the-counter treatments for constipation — like stool softeners and laxatives — exist, many people don’t find relief in them. For others, using these products is not an option because their constipation is long-term.
Probiotic supplements have taken the world of GI issues by storm and some people believe them to be the panacea. While that’s not true, probiotic supplements have been shown to be beneficial for a few GI conditions.
In this article, we’ll explore whether probiotics can treat your constipation.
What are probiotics?
Simply put, probiotics are “good bacteria”.
Your gut is home to over 500 species of bacteria. These bacteria make up what’s called your gut microbiome, which exists in a sensitive balance and is necessary for the normal functioning of your bowel.
The classic example of what happens when the gut microbiome gets altered is pseudomembranous colitis. This condition occurs as a result of antibiotic use, which kills off the healthy bacteria in the gut.
When healthy bacteria die, bad bacteria like C. difficile (the cause of pseudomembranous colitis) divide rapidly. This leads to diarrhea in these patients and sometimes, the infection can become life-threatening.
Alterations in the gut microbiome have been implicated in many other gut conditions, and the goal of probiotics is to restore this balance.
By introducing healthy bacteria to the gut, probiotics decrease the number of bad bacteria and restore the normal functioning of the bowel. Many people believe that the only source of probiotics is a supplement, which is not true.
Natural foods — like yogurt and kimchi — are an excellent source of probiotics. In fact, in healthy individuals, probiotic supplements are not needed and natural foods work pretty well.
However, certain gut conditions respond pretty well to probiotics, so let’s take a look at them now.
Can probiotics treat constipation?
Yes, probiotics can treat constipation. But whether or not they are effective for you depends on the strain you take and more importantly, the cause of your constipation.
In a review of 14 studies by researchers at King’s College, London, it was found that probiotics increase the weekly number of bowel movements and make the stool softer, both of which can be helpful for constipation.
Probiotics containing Bifidobacterium were discovered to be the most effective, however more research is needed in this regard. More research is also needed to find out the duration and dosage of probiotics to treat constipation.
Many other studies have supported the use of probiotics for a variety of constipation causes. These include:
● Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
● Childhood constipation
IBS is a functional gut disorder characterized by recurrent abdominal pain and chronic changes in bowel habits, which can include both constipation and diarrhea. And many studies have shown that probiotics can not only improve stool consistency and bowel regularity, but also help treat other abdominal symptoms of IBS.
Here’s a list of the strains you might want to try if you have constipation from IBS. A mixture of these will also work.
● Bifidobacterium infantis
● Lactobacillus acidophilus
● Saccharomyces boulardii
● Bifidobacterium lactis
● Lactobacillus plantarum
Pregnancy is also a common cause of constipation, which occurs due to fluctuating hormone levels, prenatal supplements, and potential changes in your physical activity.
Pregnant women might need to strain excessively for a successful bowel movement and may have a sense of incomplete emptying after they go to the toilet. Studies have shown probiotic supplements can alleviate both these symptoms and increase the frequency of stools in pregnancy.
Many medications can also cause constipation, and probiotics have been shown to be effective for constipation due to some of these drugs.
Chemotherapy drugs and iron supplements are two causes of constipation that you can treat with probiotics. In this month-long study on chemotherapy patients, probiotics improved the constipation in 96% of the individuals.
Similarly, in this study, women taking a probiotic and iron supplement together had regular bowel movements compared to women taking the iron supplement with a placebo.
Unfortunately, there’s a long list of other drugs that cause constipation and we’re not sure whether probiotics could be helpful for them. Examples include opioids, antidepressants, and blood-pressure reducing drugs called calcium-channel blockers.
If you think your constipation is being caused by a drug, it’s best to consult a doctor. Your doctor may be able to provide you with an alternative drug with fewer adverse effects.
Finally, childhood constipation is another condition that can be relieved using probiotics. Constipation in children can be caused by a variety of causes — like psychological problems and dietary factors — and studies have shown that probiotics help.
At the same time, other studies have failed to demonstrate this benefit. You should know that sometimes, serious disorders like Hirschsprung’s disease and cystic fibrosis can cause childhood constipation.
While childhood constipation is usually caused by benign factors, consulting a doctor will keep you on the safe side.
Other treatments for constipation
You should know that most bouts of transient constipation can be easily managed at home. Some of the things that can help include:
● Drinking extra water
● Increasing high-fiber foods to your diet — however, be careful about fiber if you have IBS
● Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
If you still feel the need for probiotics, make sure to purchase from a reputable company. That’s because probiotic supplements are not under tight regulation by the FDA, and manufacturers can make false claims about their products easily.
You should also be careful about the strain of the product you choose, since certain strains are the most effective for specific conditions. Consulting a healthcare professional who’s aware of probiotic supplements can be helpful for this.
Finally, make sure to check the expiration date of the supplement you’re buying. Expired supplements may contain dead bacteria, making them ineffective.
Will probiotics help you poop? Yes, but only if your constipation is caused by specific conditions like IBS, childhood constipation, pregnancy, and medications.
Medically reviewed by Onikepe Adegbola, MD PhD