It’s not the sort of topic people like to talk about publicly, but bowel movements are a totally normal, super natural, very important thing we all have to do.
That said, not everyone’s bathroom experiences are so simple. When you live with diarrhea, chronic constipation, indigestion, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, or other digestive and GI tract issues, life can be a challenge. You might deal with pain, the inconvenience of irregularity, embarrassing gas, uncomfortable bloating, and even shame around seeing a doctor or seeking help.
While an unhealthy gut has an obvious negative impact on your physical wellness (hello, bloating!), it can also disrupt your mood and mental wellbeing—and that’s because what goes on within the gut crosses the blood-brain barrier. Ever feel sick to your stomach when you experience anxiety or stress? Or does stress ever cause you to skip bathroom time? Your gut-mind communication plays a large role in that response.
If you’re someone experiencing the above symptoms, or if you would simply like to find more bathroom regularity in your everyday life, probiotic supplements (as well as a healthy diet and a working stress management system) may support your overall digestive healing and functioning. Even better, probiotics have been linked to all sorts of other benefits too, including support for women’s health issues, boosted immunity, better nutrient absorption, and sustainable weight loss.
How do probiotics work?
To start, it helps to understand the complexities of the digestive system. This system is made up of various organs, including the liver, the gallbladder, the pancreas, and the gastrointestinal tract (from your mouth down to your small and large intestine and anus). This system, also known as the gut microbiome or gut flora, is where very important bacteria—trillions of them, good and bad—live and thrive.
Probiotics are known as good bacteria, and it’s important to populate your gut with them so that they can not only flourish but also outnumber the bad bacteria, creating a sense of balance and harmony for your body.
Can probiotics help support regularity?
According to Julie Corliss, executive editor of Harvard Heart Letter, about 14 percent of the population have problems with bowel movement regularity without much relief from over-the-counter quick fixes, like laxatives. The good news is that studies show probiotic therapy, which is more natural, safe, and sustainable, can help soften stool and increase weekly bowel movements by 1.3 times. The probiotic most praised for its ability to promote regularity? Bifidobacterium, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
On top of promoting an easier bathroom experience, probiotics have been found to regulate the amount of time your food needs to move through your digestive system. This ‘gut transit time’ is important because if the food you eat passes too quickly, you skip out on necessary nutrients. If it moves too slowly, you can find yourself constipated.
Can probiotics help treat or prevent IBS symptoms or antibiotic-associated/general diarrhea?
According to a review in Clinical Gastroenterology & Hepatology, some studies show that probiotics have a positive effect on irritable bowel syndrome symptoms—especially those probiotics strains that contain Bifidobacteria. In cases of diarrhea, there is some evidence—though more information is needed—that Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) may help prevent instances of diarrhea. However, evidence that it can help treat (rather than prevent) diarrhea is stronger.
In the case of diarrhea associated with antibiotic usage, the strains LGG and S. boulardii were shown to be effective in reducing risk. So if you take antibiotics and experience stomach upset, probiotics may help relieve that discomfort.
How long should you take probiotic supplements before you start to see the benefits?
For long-term and preventive relief, probiotic use should be sustained, which means you should build it into your daily routine. According to the aforementioned review in Clinical Gastroenterology & Hepatology, “If sustained benefit from a probiotic is desired, continued consumption is likely required.” This means it could take up to two weeks before the good bacteria you’ve planted in your gut microbiome has reproduced and started to really flourish.
That said, there are some cases where probiotics work more immediately, like in the treatment of minor tummy troubles, such as bloating or gas.
Where can you get probiotics?
Should you eat probiotic-rich foods or take probiotic supplements? The short answer is both. To promote a healthy gut microbiome and kickstart a healthier bathroom experience, you’ll want to eat foods with probiotics and take a probiotic supplement.
According to nutrition coach Lauran Brannigan of Glitter & Gut Health, you can find probiotics in foods like sauerkraut, some soft cheeses and pickles, tempeh, fermented cabbage, and yogurt. To support maximum health, she recommends taking probiotics as part of an anti-inflammatory diet as well. This means you’ll want to limit sugar, gluten, and most grains.
Christine Dionese, integrative, epigenetic health and food therapy specialist, says that people should also be focusing on eating prebiotic-rich foods as well as probiotics. “In general, folks are not consuming enough prebiotic-rich foods and focusing on the wrong supposedly probiotic-rich foods. Consuming probiotics….a great place to start while looking at how to lean toward dietary choices that reflect more robust consumption of pre- and probiotic rich foods.”
Prebiotics are compounds in foods that induce the growth of bacteria. In other words, they’re the foods that bacteria like to eat. These can be taken as supplements with probiotics to boost the gut flora, but you can also get prebiotics from foods like dandelion greens, garlic, bananas, asparagus, and leeks.
To ensure maximum gut health and benefit, the goal is to make sure your foods are probiotic- and prebiotic-rich and high quality. For example, there are plenty of yogurts out there, but not all of them cut it, says Dionese. You want to look for a clean yogurt with a few ingredients (as opposed to those loaded with added sugars and preserved fruits), and you’ll want to make sure the label says S. thermophilus or L. bulgaricus.
Because your gut microbiome is filled with trillions of bacteria, adults can take up to 20 million CFUs of probiotics from both food or a supplement daily—making it very hard to overdose on probiotics. That said, certain people—like those with cancer or a severely compromised immune system—may not want to take that many or any probiotic. This is because probiotics carry a small risk of infection.
If you’re interested in supplementing, a probiotic product like Tri-Flora Plus, which combines Saccharomyces boulardii (SB), Lactobacillus, and Bifidobacterium, might be a good place to start. Tri-Flora Plus supports the intestinal tract by restoring the beneficial intestinal flora.
What else can you do to promote gut health?
The use of probiotics to support gut health is important, but so is drinking enough water, getting 20-30 grams of dietary fiber daily, taking digestive enzymes, exercising (moving your body helps contract your GI muscles), managing your stress, and ingesting foods (fruits, veggies, and legumes) that increase short-chain fatty acids.
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