What are probiotics and prebiotics?
Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that live naturally in the digestive tract, and have proven benefits for those who suffer from digestive conditions like bloating, diarrhoea and constipation. Taking a daily probiotic on an ongoing basis tops up your existing friendly bacteria, which helps to maintain the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.
Prebiotics are indigestible fibres which selectively feed probiotics, helping them to grow faster than bad bacteria. All prebiotics are extracted from plants, and can be found naturally in chicory root, Jerusalem artichokes and onions, and whilst they might taste sweet they’re suitable for diabetics.
Probiotics play an important part in digestion by helping your body extract nutrients from food. They do this by releasing enzymes that break down food molecules, which benefits both the probiotic and your body. What’s clever about probiotics is that they react to their environment and release enzymes appropriate for your digestion.
Probiotics also act as a barrier against harmful (pathogenic) bacteria by coating the gastrointestinal tract, so that they compete directly with pathogens for space and nutrients. Space is important for bacteria, because before they can colonise and multiply they need to attach themselves to the gut wall lining. By taking a probiotic supplement, you’re making sure that the bad bacteria in your gut don’t grow to harmful levels, and by doing that you’ll reduce the chance of suffering from constipation.
- Low energy
- Food intolerance or allergies
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Let’s get specific
Not every probiotic is the same, and they don’t all do the same thing. When you buy a probiotic, it’s important that you choose a strain backed by solid research. A strain is the smallest identifier that scientists use to categorise bacteria. You also need to bear in mind that probiotics are characterised by their genus, species and their strain. So keep an eye out for research which is strain specific, because then you know for sure what the strain does.
Probiotics & Constipation
Probiotics are well renowned for helping your overall digestion, but certain strains have been shown to specifically help with constipation. The probiotic strain Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12®, for example, converts prebiotic fibres into short chain fatty acids which lubricate your gut and naturally stimulate peristalsis. Whilst 'stimulant' and 'osmotic' laxatives do this too (read more about laxatives here), probiotics achieve the same effect naturally and don’t irritate your gut in the process.
One of the main benefits that probiotics have over laxatives is that they can’t cause ‘lazy’ gut, which happens when your digestive system becomes reliant on the extra help from laxatives. Probiotics also don’t carry the risk of dehydration, which means you can take them on an ongoing basis.
Pregnant women and Probiotics
Unlike some herbal remedies and laxatives, probiotics are completely safe to take if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. Because probiotics are natural to the human body, there is very little chance that they will react with any medication that you’re already taking. The best strains are also thoroughly tested and trialled to make sure they are completely safe. For more information, read our articles on pregnancy & constipation and babies with constipation.
We suggest that you take a product which contains both probiotics and prebiotics. For constipation in particular, our favourite product is OptiBac Probiotics ‘Bifidobacteria & fibre’.   This contains the Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12® strain that we talked about earlier, and it has an impressive amount of prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS).
References & Footnotes
 Collado MC, Jalonen L, Meriluoto J, Salminen S. Protection Mechanism of probiotic combination against human pathogens: in vitro adhesion to human intestinal mucus. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2006, 15(4): 570-575
Daniel N. Frank, Wei Zhu, R. Balfour Sartor, Ellen Li. Investigating the biological and clinical significance of human dysbioses. Trends Microbiol. 2011 September; 19(9): 427–434.
Matsumoto M, Imai T, Hironaka T, Kume H, Watanabe M and Benno Y. Effect of Yoghurt with Bifidobacterium lactis LKM512 in Improving Fecal Microflora and Defecation of Healthy Volunteers. Intestine Microbiology Magazine 2001;14:97-102.
Murakami T, Miyahara H, Yukisato S, Nakamura R, Kanno H, Kotakemori M, Kamei T and Kobayashi O. Safety and effect of yoghurt containing Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 on improvement of defecation and fecal microflora in healthy volunteers. Food, Health and Nutrition Research (Journal of Nutritional Food) 2006;9(1):1-12.
Uchida K, Akashi K, Kusunoki I, Ikeda T, Katano N, Motoshima H and Benno Y. Effect of fermented milk containing Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 on stool frequency, defecation, fecal microbiota and safety of excessive ingestion in healthy female students -2nd report. Food Health and Nutrition Research (Journal of Nutritional Food) 2005;8(1):39-51.