Constipation is a common issue that impacts roughly 16% of adults worldwide.
It can be challenging to treat, leading many people to turn to natural remedies and over-the-counter supplements, such as probiotics.
Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria naturally found in fermented foods, including kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and tempeh. They’re also sold as supplements.
When consumed, probiotics enhance the gut microbiome — the collection of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract that helps regulate inflammation, immune function, digestion, and heart health.
Studies show that upping your intake of probiotics may reduce blood sugar levels and support weight loss, liver function, and skin health. Probiotics may also make harmful bacteria less likely to proliferate in your gut.
This article tells you whether probiotics can help treat constipation.
Effects on various types of constipation
Probiotics have been studied for their effects on constipation across various conditions.
Irritable bowel syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a digestive disorder that can lead to numerous symptoms, including stomach pain, bloating and constipation.
Probiotics are often used to aid IBS symptoms, including constipation.
One review of 24 studies showed that probiotics reduced the severity of symptoms and improved bowel habits, bloating, and quality of life in people with IBS.
Another study in 150 people with IBS revealed that supplementing with probiotics for 60 days helped improve bowel regularity and stool consistency.
What’s more, in a 6-week study of 274 people, drinking a probiotic-rich, fermented milk beverage increased stool frequency and reduced IBS symptoms.
Constipation in children is common and can be caused by various factors, including diet, family history, food allergies, and psychological issues.
Multiple studies indicate that probiotics relieve constipation in children.
For instance, a review of 6 studies found that taking probiotics for 3–12 weeks increased stool frequency in children with constipation. A 4-week study in 48 children linked this supplement to improved frequency and consistency of bowel movements.
However, other studies provide mixed results. Thus, more research is needed.
Up to 38% of pregnant women experience constipation, which can be caused by prenatal supplements, hormonal fluctuations, or changes in physical activity.
Some research suggests that taking probiotics during pregnancy may prevent constipation.
In a 4-week study of 60 pregnant women with constipation, eating 10.5 ounces (300 grams) of probiotic yogurt enriched with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacteria daily increased the frequency of bowel movements and improved several constipation symptoms.
In another study of 20 women, probiotics containing a mix of bacteria strains increased bowel movement frequency and improved constipation symptoms like straining, stomach pain, and the sense of incomplete evacuation.
Several medications may contribute to constipation, including opioids, iron pills, antidepressants, and certain cancer treatments.
In particular, chemotherapy is a significant cause of constipation. Around 16% of people undergoing this cancer treatment experience constipation.
In a study of nearly 500 people with cancer, 25% reported improvements in constipation or diarrhea after taking probiotics. Meanwhile, in a 4-week study of 100 people, probiotics improved constipation caused by chemotherapy in 96% of participants.
Probiotics may also benefit those who experience constipation caused by iron supplements.
For example, a small, 2-week study in 32 women noted that taking a probiotic alongside an iron supplement every day increased bowel regularity and intestinal function compared with taking a placebo.
Suggested read: Food fermentation: Benefits, safety, food list, and more
Even so, more research is needed to determine whether probiotics can help relieve constipation caused by other medications, such as narcotics and antidepressants.
Summary: Research shows that probiotics may treat childhood constipation and constipation caused by pregnancy, IBS, and certain medications.
Although probiotics are generally considered safe, they have a few side effects that you may want to consider.
When you’re first taking them, they can cause digestive issues, such as stomach cramps, nausea, gas, and diarrhea.
However, these symptoms typically subside with continued use.
Some research suggests that probiotics may cause serious side effects, such as an increased risk of infection, in people with compromised immune systems.
Thus, it’s best to consult a healthcare professional before taking probiotics if you have any underlying health conditions.
Summary: Probiotics can cause digestive issues, which typically subside over time. Yet, they may cause serious side effects in those with compromised immune systems.
How to select and use probiotics
Picking the right probiotic is key to treating constipation, as certain strains may not be as effective as others.
Look for supplements that contain the following strains of bacteria, which have been shown to improve stool consistency:
- Bifidobacterium lactis
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Streptococcus thermophilus
- Lactobacillus reuteri
- Bifidobacterium longum
Although there is no specific recommended dosage for probiotics, most supplements pack 1–10 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) per serving.
Use them only as directed for best results, and consider decreasing your dosage if you experience persistent side effects.
Since supplements may take several weeks to work, stick to one specific type for 3–4 weeks to evaluate its effectiveness before switching.
Alternatively, try including a variety of probiotic foods in your diet.
Fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha, kefir, natto, tempeh, and sauerkraut are all rich in beneficial bacteria and other essential nutrients.
Summary: Certain strains of probiotics may be more effective than others at treating constipation. Aside from taking supplements, you can eat fermented foods to increase your probiotic intake.
Probiotics offer several health benefits, one of which may be treating constipation.
Studies suggest that probiotics may relieve constipation related to pregnancy, certain medications, or digestive issues like IBS.
Probiotics are largely safe and effective, making them an excellent addition to a healthy diet to improve bowel regularity.