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Ask Dr. K: Probiotics seem to ease constipation

Anthony L. Komaroff M.D.

DEAR DOCTOR K: I suffer from constipation. Do you think probiotics might help?

DEAR READER: Probiotics are living bacteria found in cultured foods, like yogurt, and in dietary supplements. They have long been touted for their ability to ease digestive woes.

The strongest evidence for probiotics is in treating diarrhea caused by a viral infection or from taking antibiotics. Our bodies are home to a mix of “good” and “bad” bacteria. Both infections and antibiotics disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in your gut. Probiotics can help restore this balance.

But the opposite problem – constipation – is more common than diarrhea. Yet many over-the-counter remedies for constipation, such as laxatives and stool softeners, aren’t all that helpful.

Researchers set out to determine whether probiotics work against constipation. They analyzed 14 studies that met their criteria for a well-done study. All were clinical trials that randomly assigned people with constipation to take either probiotics or a placebo (or other control treatments).

The researchers found that on average, probiotics speeded up “gut transit time” by 12.4 hours. They increased the number of weekly bowel movements by 1.3. And they helped soften stools, making them easier to pass.

There’s not enough evidence yet to recommend a specific probiotic for constipation. Until there is, experimenting on your own is probably a safe bet. Probiotics don’t seem to have any side effects, and they are generally considered safe.

Fermented or cultured dairy products are a good source of probiotics. These include yogurt and buttermilk. Other sources include miso, tempeh and soy beverages. The bacteria occur naturally in some of these foods. In other products, they are added during preparation.

Probiotics are also available as dietary supplements. You can find a variety of them on drugstore and supermarket shelves. Let your doctor know if you are using probiotics.

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