Chances are you've experienced constipation at some point in your life. That uncomfortable, sometimes painful feeling of not being able to complete a bowel movement is not easily forgotten. So what is constipation exactly? According to doctors, constipation is "hard pellet-like stools" (1). Those suffering from constipation often define it a little differently, as "infrequent stools, difficulty or straining at stools, feeling of being unable to completely empty during a bowel movement, or the sensation of wanting to go but not being able to" (1). You can also develop chronic constipation. The Mayo Clinic defines constipation as chronic once you've experienced two or more of the above symptoms for a minimum of three months (2). One treatment option you may not have considered is taking probiotics for constipation. Probiotics are the good bacteria in your gut that have many health benefits, such as improving digestion, strengthening the immune system, and producing the important vitamins that your body requires. They can help ease constipation symptoms and restore digestive health.
Do Probiotics Ease Constipation?
According to Julie Corliss of Harvard Health Publishing, probiotic supplements, particularly those containing Bifidobacterium, do help ease constipation (3). Specifically, probiotics "increased the number of weekly bowel movements by 1.3 and helped soften stools, making them easier to pass" (3). According to Corliss, probiotics also "slowed gut transit time by 12.4 hours," making them helpful for other digestive health problems, such as diarrhea (3). As of now, there is no "best probiotic" when it comes to constipation. More scientific research is needed before specific probiotic strains or species can be recommended for this and other digestive tract issues (3). However, using probiotics to treat constipation is considered safe and effective, with few to no known side effects. If you want to alleviate constipation, boost your immune system, and restore gut health, probiotics can help. It's also important to support probiotics with prebiotics. Prebiotics are a type of indigestible fiber that serves as food for probiotics. They help maintain a healthy intestinal environment and encourage beneficial species of gut flora to grow. Prebiotics are lacking in the majority of western diets. Furthermore, gut issues and chronic digestive problems are also directly linked to a lack of collagen. According to nutrition expert Dr. Nicole Avena, "collagen may help for constipation because it is a hydrophilic molecule, which can help to attract water and acidic molecules. This may help food move through the GI tract more smoothly" (4). Let's dive deeper into what causes constipation.
What Causes Constipation?
It can be helpful to understand the underlying cause of your constipation before attempting to treat it. The following are some common causes.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)According to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders, people with IBS often experience constipation (1). This is often in conjunction with other symptoms of IBS, such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, gas, and bloating. Symptoms can also change over time, getting worse or improving seemingly at random (1). A clinical review on the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome with probiotics found two species were commonly studied in relation to IBS: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (5). Both were effective against constipation. It appears that Bifidobacterium improves bloating and constipation, while Lactobacillus improves bloating and constipation as well as additional IBS symptoms like abdominal pain and diarrhea (5). Further research is needed to determine exactly how probiotics can be used clinically to treat IBS symptoms.
MedicationsThe side effects of some prescription and over-the-counter medications include constipation. Non steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can cause constipation, as can stronger opioid painkillers like Vicodin, and OxyContin (6). Antidepressants like Prozac and Elavil, calcium-channel blockers like Cardizem, and anticholinergics such as Benadryl and Ditropan can also cause constipation — either by blocking nerve endings in the gut, forcing the muscles in the gut to relax, or inhibiting muscle movement altogether (6). Iron supplements can also cause constipation. Before you turn to even more medication to address your constipation side effects, consider this: Heavily relying on over-the-counter laxatives for constipation relief negatively affects your gut health. According to Dr. Anish Sheth, a gastroenterologist at Princeton, regularly using laxatives can throw your gut microbiome out of balance by destroying healthy bacteria (7). In this case, taking probiotics may not only help relieve your constipation, it can also restore your gut microbiota.
PregnancyThe American Pregnancy Association states that "constipation affects approximately half of all women at some point during their pregnancy" (8). That's a lot of women. The cause behind pregnant women’s constipation is believed to be partly hormonal. During pregnancy, hormones cause muscles in the intestines to relax, thereby slowing gut transit time. Furthermore, as the uterus gets larger it puts more and more pressure on the intestines (8). This pressure may be partially responsible for the lack of regular bowel movements. Many pregnant women also take iron supplements, which is one of the medications listed above that may cause constipation (8). A 2012 clinical trial examined the effectiveness of probiotics in treating constipation in pregnant women. Participants received the following probiotic strains: Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus plantarum, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus (9). Researchers found the probiotics mixture effective in treating constipation symptoms. They observed a "significant increase in defecation frequency and significant improvement in the sensation of incomplete evacuation, sensation of anorectal obstruction, straining during defecation, abdominal pain, and reflux episodes" (9). There were also minor amounts of prebiotics in the probiotic mixture. Researchers believed the prebiotics enhanced the probiotic's ability to relieve constipation symptoms. None of the study participants reported any side effects from supplementing with probiotics (9). It's important to note that laxatives are not recommended for pregnant women, as they "might stimulate uterine contractions" (8). This makes probiotics an even more valuable resource for pregnant women trying to banish constipation, as laxatives simply aren’t an option.
Is It Safe to Take Probiotics?
Julie Corliss of Harvard Health Publishing says "probiotics are generally considered safe and they don't seem to have any side effects" (3). However, it's important to point out that probiotics are considered dietary supplements — not medications. Therefore, they are not regulated by the FDA like medications are. According to the FDA website, "Federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe to FDA's satisfaction before they are marketed." (10). So how often should you take probiotics? According to Aubri John of Livestrong, you do not need to take a daily probiotic supplement (11). Try taking probiotics until your constipation symptoms improve or for the length of time your doctor recommends. Before starting probiotics, consider consulting your healthcare provider or a dietician.
The Main Takeaway of Using Probiotics for Constipation
Constipation is a common gastrointestinal problem. Irritable bowel syndrome, medications, and pregnancy are just some causes of constipation. You can ease common constipation symptoms with probiotic supplements. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium seem to be particularly effective. Probiotics are considered safe to consume with few to no side effects from use. It's important to point out that your gut microbiome's balance of good and bad bacteria is unique. Just because a probiotic worked for one person does not guarantee that it will work for you. Remember, this information does not constitute medical advice. We're not doctors. If you're suffering from constipation, we recommend you consult your healthcare provider or work with a dietician. Want to take control of your gut health? Sign up for our email list to receive exclusive health tips straight to your inbox.