By Eirini Dimidi, PhD, Lecturer at King’s College London
Constipation is a common disorder that affects approximately 8% of the general population and is characterised by symptoms of infrequent or difficult bowel movements (1). People who suffer with constipation often report that it negatively affects their quality of life and the majority use some sort of treatment, such as fibre supplements and laxatives, to alleviate their symptoms (2). However, approximately half of those report they are not completely satisfied with the treatment options currently available to them, mainly due to lack of effectiveness in improving their symptoms (2).
Could probiotics offer an effective alternative way to treat constipation symptoms?
Our team at the Department of Nutritional Sciences at King’s College London has investigated the potential benefits of probiotic supplements in chronic constipation. We have extensively reviewed the available evidence on their mechanisms of action in affecting gut motility and their effectiveness in improving symptoms, and we have also conducted a randomised controlled trial of a novel probiotic in 75 people with chronic constipation (3-5).
USE OF PROBIOTICS
Before looking at the evidence on the effectiveness of probiotics in constipation, it is easy to see that some people with constipation already choose to try probiotics for their gut health. A national UK survey of over 2,500 members of the public, which included people with and without constipation, showed that people with constipation have a 5.2 higher chance of currently using probiotics for gut health, compared to people who don’t suffer from it (3).
However, the majority of doctors do not recommend probiotics for the relief of constipation symptoms, nor do they believe there is enough evidence to support their use in this condition (3).
So, what is the current evidence on probiotics and constipation?
MECHANISMS OF ACTION OF PROBIOTICS
Probiotics may impact gut motility and constipation through several mechanisms of action. Depending on the strain, they may affect the number and composition of gut microbes, as well as the compounds they release. The gut microbiota and their released compounds can then interact with our immune and nervous system, with the latter being the primary regulator of gut motility, ultimately improving constipation symptoms. Therefore, there is a rationale to support a potential improvement in constipation. But is this supported by evidence from clinical trials?
EFFECTIVENESS OF PROBIOTICS
A systematic review of the literature showed Bifidobacterium lactis strains appear to improve several symptoms of constipation, such as infrequent bowel movements and hard stools (4). At the same time, other probiotic species did not improve any symptoms. This is an important finding as it highlights that not all probiotics have the same effects in constipation, and that only certain probiotics may improve constipation. Therefore, people with constipation may only benefit from specific probiotic products – but which products would those be? Since the systematic review above showed that several B. lactis strains were effective, does this means that people with constipation may benefit from any B. lactis-containing product?
Unfortunately, it is a bit more complicated. Since the publication of the aforementioned review, new studies have been published showing that, while some probiotic products with B. lactis are effective, various other B. lactis probiotics do not impact constipation (5-6). This may be explained by strain-specific effects, but also other methodological differences among studies (e.g. probiotic dose).
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
Can we recommend probiotics for the management of constipation? At the moment, there is some low quality evidence to support the use of certain Bifidobacterium lactis strains to help manage symptoms of constipation. Further high-quality studies are needed to clarify which specific probiotic strains may be effective. However, given that there is some evidence in this area (albeit limited), along with the fact probiotics are safe for the general population to consume (unless clinically contraindicated), people with constipation could try a probiotic product of their choice for four weeks, should they wish to, bearing in mind the uncertainty in the evidence so far. But scientists continue to work to answer this question because the evidence is promising enough to warrant continued study of probiotics for constipation.
- Palsson, Gastroenterol 2020;158:1262-1273
- Johanson & Kralstein, Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2007;25(5):599-608
- Dimidi et al, Nutrition 2019;61:157-163
- Dimidi et al, Am J Clin Nutr 2014;100(4):1075-84
- Dimidi et al, Aliment Pharmacol Ther 2019;49:251-264
- Wang et al, Beneficial Microbes 2021;12:31-42