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Updated 22 August 2018

How can probiotics help your digestive problems?

Probiotics perform a wide range of functions that are important for maintaining good health, particularly in terms of digestion.

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Here’s how these healthy bacteria can help ease digestive problems:

Constipation
Constipation is one of the conditions most commonly treated with probiotics, either alone or in combination with other medications such as laxatives or prokinetics (which promote movement in the digestive system). 

Probiotics are particularly helpful in situations where constipation is caused by the improper or incomplete digestion of food.

This is usually the result of imbalances in intestinal flora, which a probiotic can help to restore. In this way, the probiotics help you to regain the ability to properly digest food.

Watch this video, which helps to explain the mechanics of constipation

Diarrhoea
At the other end of the scale, probiotics are also often indicated in the treatment of diarrhoea. 

Here they perform a dual role: firstly, a probiotic supplement can ensure that the gut flora remains healthy and well-balanced. This could speed up the return to normal defecation. Secondly, serious diarrhoea can cause the gut flora to become depleted, which can slow recovery. In some cases, symptoms may even worsen. Once again, probiotic supplements can help you to regain a healthy balance of intestinal bacteria.

Supplementation of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus plantarum seem to be particularly useful in terms of treating diarrhoea. Traditionally, the plantarum strain was administered alone, but modern best practice includes both Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus acidophilus for increased efficacy.

Both constipation and diarrhoea can also be caused by medications taken for unrelated conditions, e.g. strong anti-inflammatories and antibiotics. In these instances, a probiotic supplement is often prescribed along with the medication to minimise the gastrointestinal side effects.

These probiotics are usually taken for some time after the course of the primary medication has been completed to properly restore the balance of the gut flora.

Lactose intolerance
Probiotics have also been shown to minimise symptoms of lactose intolerance.

The bloating, cramping, flatulence and diarrhoea associated with this common food intolerance can cause substantial discomfort, forcing affected individuals to adopt restricted diets.

There’s currently no cure for lactose intolerance, but certain treatments are available to improve an individual’s tolerance of lactose – a natural sugar found in milk. Probiotics are increasingly recommended as a method to help people with lactose intolerance better digest lactose.

Lactobacillus acidophilus, in particular, has been shown to be effective in boosting levels of the lactose-digesting enzyme, lactase, in the gastrointestinal tract.

Inflammatory bowel disease
Preliminary research shows that probiotics may also be beneficial in the management of ulcerative colitis.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear evidence to show that people with Crohn’s disease, another type of inflammatory bowel disease, can benefit from taking probiotics.  

Reviewed by Kim Hofmann, registered dietitian, BSc Medical (Honours) Nutrition and Dietetics, BSc (Honours) Psychology. April 2018.

 
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