September 16, 2013
Let’s face it. Constipation is an annoyance and an inconvenience. In fact, constipation is the most common complaint related to the digestive tract – and one that becomes more common with age. A number of lifestyle habits contribute to the problem of constipation – eating a low-fiber diet, not drinking enough water, medications and lack of physical activity – but there’s growing evidence that gut bacteria play a role too.
What evidence is there that gut bacteria are linked with constipation? Some research shows that people with chronic constipation have a different composition of bacteria in their gut than people with normal, healthy bowel movements. You might wonder how bacteria, good or bad, could have any impact on bowel movement frequency. A portion of your nervous system lies in your gut where it maintains close contact with your brain through chemical and electrical signals. This auxiliary nervous system is called the enteric nervous system or “second brain.” One of its functions is to control gut motility, how fast foods moves through your digestive tract.
Gut bacteria influence the enteric nervous system by releasing substances that affect gut motility and motor function. In fact, animals that are born with no bacteria in their intestines have delayed intestinal transit time, a factor that would lead to constipation. When bacteria are introduced to these animals, it increases transit time through the gut and normalizes bowel function.
What about other research? There are pilot studies showing that certain strains of probiotic bacteria improve constipation symptoms. One was carried out in twenty pregnant women experiencing constipation, a common problem during pregnancy. This study showed that a mixture of probiotic bacteria including various strains of Bifidiobacterium and Lactobacillus eased constipation symptoms in this group of pregnant women.
Other small studies show that probiotics improve stool texture, reduce straining and increase bowel movement frequency. Research carried out in children has found similar results. In these studies a number of strains of probiotic bacteria appeared to have benefits. Whether particular strains offer more benefits than others for easing constipation isn’t clear. Further research will be needed to answer this question. Most preliminary studies suggest that a combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium offer the most promise.
The beauty of probiotics for promoting bowel health and improving gut motility is that they have an excellent safety profile and are relatively free of side effects. Prescription and over-the-counter laxatives and medications used to treat constipation can cause bloating, cramping, gas, nausea and diarrhea, while most people tolerate probiotic supplements with few or no side effects. Plus, probiotics may have other beneficial effects on digestive, gut and immune health.
The bottom line? Probiotic bacteria have the potential to normalize intestinal motility and improve digestive health in people with constipation by improving overall gut health.
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