Probiotics, the live bacteria and/or yeasts that are naturally found in the body and some cultured foods, are helpful in maintaining digestive health.
However, they are also delicate and can be killed with antibiotics, certain dietary changes, and infection.
Today, many different kinds of probiotic supplements can be found in drug stores and supermarkets across the country.
Two of the most commonly found probiotic supplements contain the bacteria Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium.
These products are generally marketed as a way to support digestive health, but can probiotics help you to have a bowel movement when you’re constipated?
In this article, we’ll go over what probiotics and prebiotics are, which foods contain them, and whether or not probiotics or prebiotics found in foods or supplements can support digestive health.
We’ll also explain when you should reach out to a healthcare provider before trying probiotic supplements at home.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics refer to a combination of live microorganisms that are found in the body and in some cultured foods.
In the body, probiotics contribute to your microbiome, an important community of microbes (including bacteria, fungi, viruses, and protozoa) that support many essential bodily functions.
Most of the probiotics in the body live in the gut (specifically the large intestines), but they can also be found in the mouth, vagina, urinary tract, skin, and lungs.
Probiotics help maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria in the body.
Foods With Probiotics
Many foods also contain probiotics.
In fact, you can support the amount of beneficial microbes in your body by consuming certain foods that contain probiotics, like:
- Sourdough bread
- Cottage cheese
- Raw and unpasteurized cheeses
- Fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi
- Miso soup
Incorporating foods with probiotics into your diet can help to support a healthy microbiome, but it’s important to maintain a balance of probiotic-rich foods and other kinds of foods.
Prebiotics are the food source for good bacteria found in the gut and elsewhere in the body.
There are several different types of prebiotics, but the majority of them are complex carbohydrates known as oligosaccharide carbohydrates (OSCs).
Many people who take probiotic supplements may be advised to combine them with a prebiotic supplement.
Evidence suggests that prebiotics may have protective effects on the gastrointestinal system, central nervous system, and cardiovascular system.
Probiotics and Poop
Because most of the probiotics that naturally live in the body live in the gastrointestinal tract, probiotics found in foods and supplements have long been believed to support general digestive health.
The research on the use of probiotics to treat constipation is complex.
One systematic review and meta-analysis found that probiotics in general may improve whole gut transit time (the time it takes for waste to become fecal matter and be eliminated), stool frequency, and stool consistency.
This review also found that the probiotic Bifidobacterium lactis (B. lactis) may be especially helpful in treating functional constipation.
But the results from a randomized clinical trial found that the same probiotic, B. lactis, was not effective in the management of mild chronic constipation.
However, both of these reports conclude that there isn’t enough evidence to recommend a specific probiotic for constipation and that further studies are needed to better understand the strain-specific effects of probiotics on constipation.
Similarly, there is research to suggest that probiotics can work to reduce pain and symptom severity in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but which individual species and strains are the most beneficial remains unclear.
More research is needed to identify the role of probiotics in the management of this and other gastrointestinal disorders.
Other digestive problems
Some of the strongest evidence for probiotics in support of digestive health is in treating diarrhea caused by a viral infection or from taking antibiotics.
Because infection and antibiotics can disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in the digestive system, probiotics have been found to help restore this balance after infection or antibiotic treatment.
Additionally, people with ulcerative colitis, mild flare-ups of colitis, or intestinal illnesses may benefit from probiotics called VSL#3 and E. coli Nissle.
When to See a Doctor
For many people, experimenting on your own with probiotics is probably a safe bet—in general, probiotics don’t cause any side effects and are considered safe.
However, they’re not regulated or tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the way that prescription medications are.
For this reason, you may want to consult with your healthcare provider or dietitian before adding a probiotic supplement to your diet, especially if you’re considering taking probiotics for constipation.
It’s also important to remember that probiotics are full of bacterial spores, and for some immunocompromised people, probiotic use can increase the risk of developing a serious infection.
People with cancer should be especially cautious before taking probiotics as a complementary or alternative treatment, as there can be risk of infection or serious side effects.
In addition, probiotic use may not be recommended for premature infants, people with short bowel syndrome, people with central venous catheters, and people with cardiac valve disease.
Finally, probiotics should not be used as a replacement for a visit with your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing new or troubling symptoms, like chronic constipation.
If you’re experiencing chronic constipation that won’t go away after probiotic treatment or other lifestyle changes, reach out to your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
In some cases, chronic constipation can be a sign of something more serious.
If you experience any of the below symptoms, seek emergency medical attention right away:
- Blood in stool
- Black, tarry stools
- Slow reflexes
- Severe, persistent stomach pain
How K Health Can Help
Did you know you can access online urgent care with K Health?
Check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes.
K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and is based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial: The Efficacy of Multispecies Probiotic Supplementation in Alleviating Symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome Associated with Constipation. (2016.)
Can probiotics keep my gastrointestinal system healthy? (2013.)
Change of Fecal Flora and Effectiveness of the Short-term VSL#3 Probiotic Treatment in Patients With Functional Constipation. (2015.)
Effectiveness of probiotics in irritable bowel syndrome: Updated systematic review and meta-analysis. (2015.)
Efficacy of prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics in irritable bowel syndrome and chronic idiopathic constipation: systematic review and meta-analysis. (2014.)
Prebiotics: Definition, Types, Sources, Mechanisms, and Clinical Applications. (2019.)
Probiotics may ease constipation. (2019.)
Probiotic Survey in Cancer Patients Treated in the Outpatient Department in a Comprehensive Cancer Center. (2017.)
Probiotics: What You Need To Know. (2019.)
Randomised clinical trial: Bifidobacterium lactis NCC2818 probiotic vs placebo, and impact on gut transit time, symptoms, and gut microbiology in chronic constipation. (2019.)
Risk and Safety of Probiotics. (2015.)
The effect of probiotics on functional constipation in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. (2014.)