The allure of supplements is a general lack of side effects, but, because they are more gentle-acting, they might not offer immediate relief. Supplement ingredients — fiber, magnesium, enzymes, probiotics — typically offer support for the proper function of organs and systems along the GI tract.
psyllium fiber comes from the outer coating or “husk” of the Plantago ovata seeds, not from wheat, which also makes it naturally gluten free. Psyllium is a soluble form of fiber known to promote regularity and act as a laxative.
“As a laxative, psyllium is considered bulk-forming, meaning it soaks up water in your gut, making bowel movements easier,” said Louis M. Machin, managing director at Lifelab Health, which makes psyllium fiber supplements. “However, while it helps with regularity, it doesn’t cause flatulence and can help with occasional constipation.”
magnesium can improve constipation, whether it’s supplemental magnesium or an OTC like Milk of Magnesia. Magnesium helps muscles relax, and it has similar properties with the peristaltic, wave-like muscle contractions that move food through the digestive tract. Magnesium also plays a role in numerous enzyme systems throughout the body.
Digestive enzymes are proteins the body uses to break down food and help with digestion. If the body does not make enough digestive enzymes to handle the food intake, it can mean stomach aches, flatulence and diarrhea.
Different types of enzymes break down different types of foods. Protease, as its name suggests, works on proteins. Lipase breaks down fats. Amylase helps digest carbohydrates and starches.
Probiotic bacteria are wildly popular, found in foods like yogurt, beverages like kombucha and supplements, which may be the most efficacious of all product formats because they can house larger doses.
Probiotics have come a long way, aided by research and development into specific probiotic strains that target specific health states.
One emblematic human clinical trial, conducted at a research clinic in Houston, tested the Bifidobacteria lactis HN019 strain. Researchers used about 17 billion CFUs, 2 billion CFUs and placebo in 100 subjects for 14 days. The HN109 strain cut time to excretion in a dose-dependent manner.
Of particular interest in the study were the changes in constipation, irregular bowel movements and flatulence because these symptoms were reported with the highest frequency at baseline. The HN109 groups had two-fold greater decreases in symptom frequency compared to placebo. This strain pulls its weight.
“Not all probiotics are the same,” said Brian Terry, director of sales, FDM and specialty, at supplement company Nordic Naturals. “Well-documented, specific bacterial strains matter. That’s why our Maximum Care SKU uses 11 strains that alleviate intestinal bloating and promote regularity, and these are different from the seven probiotic strains used in the Probiotic Woman SKU that balances vaginal flora and supports urinary tract health.”
Prebiotic fibers are also routinely used in conjunction with probiotics. These fibers are a food source for probiotic cultures.