5 Ways Probiotics Help Digestion

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 6/25/2022

Are probiotics the next evolution of medicine, or a trendy fad on the already-unregulated supplement market? It’s a good question these days, when drug store shelves are filled with “medications” available for a variety of conditions, with no prescription or FDA approval needed. And when probiotics are everywhere, it leads us to some more good questions — are probiotics generally good for digestive health, and if you’re having specific issues in your digestive tract, will probiotics help?

Probiotics for women aren’t all the same, and there are many different probiotic strains, dosages, delivery methods and other variables to consider when answering questions about the benefits of probiotics for digestion. But the good news is that there are answers to these questions (and yes, we’ve got them for you). 

To understand the effects of probiotics on digestion though, we need to take a quick look at what happens when you swallow a probiotic — let’s start there.

What do Probiotics Do To My Stomach?

Okay, so you just took a probiotic you purchased at a store. What happens now? 

Well, as that probiotic works its way down to your stomach, it’s getting psyched up to go and help you treat a variety of conditions and symptoms. First and foremost, it does this by improving your gut health.

Probiotics are living organisms — specifically, microorganisms — that promote gut health and support the gut biome. Basically, your digestive system is responsible for supporting a lot of other bodily functions (where do you think all that food-fuel is going, anyway?) and the best way to do that is by keeping balance in your gut’s good and bad bacteria. Probiotics can help with that.

How exactly do they help beyond the digestive system? Well, research hasn’t totally answered that question. We know that probiotics improve the immune system’s functioning, and we know that they can have anti-inflammatory benefits. Some studies have even pointed to nervous system health benefits like pain reduction. But how they do it is more of a mystery. 

Do Probiotics Help with Digestion?

Research shows that probiotics work within the intestinal tract by developing more complicated biomes of microbiota in your gut.

Generally, this makes a lot of your digestive and other bodily functions healthier, leading to beneficial effects on both short-term and chronic conditions. That includes varying forms of diarrhea, certain bowel diseases like irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, high cholesterol issues and conditions related to your digestive health, like obesity.

Where we get into murkier waters is how and when these living medications can be effective. It’s not enough to say “probiotics treat IBS,” because people need to know how, and with what dosage, and with what probiotics in particular, and that information is far from well-defined.

Don’t get us wrong — meta-analysis is starting to pencil in the details. Some have found pretty good evidence that probiotics can benefit people with conditions like IBS, even if the benefits are modest in scope. There’s also evidence that some bacterial strains can affect specific symptoms.

It’s enough data for a rudimentary — if incomplete  — road map for dealing with symptoms. Let’s take a closer look.

How Probiotics May Help with Digestion: 5 Ways

Probiotics fill in the gaps left when beneficial bacteria die off, but they can also help manage and prevent the growth of bad bacteria. These two granular behaviors can affect a variety of digestive issues and conditions for the better. Want to see how? Here are some specifics:

Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Current data shows that probiotics can benefit people with irritable bowel syndrome, but according to the NIH, the data stops short of recommending particular strains of bacteria to treat the condition. More clinical trials are needed to nail things down, so in the meantime, consider talking with a healthcare provider about their recommendations.

Treating Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease cause abdominal pain and diarrhea and people with these medical conditions may see blood in their bowel movements. While there isn’t much evidence that probiotics help Crohn’s disease, studies have shown that they may help people with ulcerative colitis go into and maintain remission.

Treating Constipation

Probiotics can even help with some everyday digestive issues. For example, studies have found that probiotics can help people with constipation, particularly elderly people. On the flip side, they haven’t found benefits for children, though some studies noted an uptick in stool frequency when children with constipation take probiotics.

Treating Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea

Antibiotics are great at treating infections, but they can also do a number on your good gut bacteria, causing diarrhea and other digestive problems. There’s some evidence that probiotics may help people recover from this type of antibiotic-associated diarrhea. And research even suggests some specific probiotic strains that can help — Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus casei, L. bulgaricus, and S. thermophilus have all been shown to have some benefits when antibiotics kill off more than your infection.

Treating Clostridium Difficile Colitis

Ulcerative colitis isn’t the only type of colitis probiotics can potentially treat. Clostridium difficile colitis is a condition caused by bacterial imbalance in the colon, so it would definitely seem like something probiotics could help with. While opinions are mixed on the data, healthcare providers tend to lean toward treating this condition with probiotics.

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Other Ways to Support Digestive Health

There are other things besides live organisms that can help you keep your gastrointestinal tract and digestive system working the way they are supposed to. The National Institutes of Health recommend a few things in particular, including:

  • Eat a healthy diet

  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals

  • Exercise

  • Get enough sleep

  • Reduce stress

  • Increase fiber consumption

  • Eat fruits and vegetables with every meal

  • Avoid emulsifiers if you're dealing with digestive disorders

These may not seem as easy as just swallowing a probiotic pill, but remember that the NIH’s research limits the benefits of external sources of good bacteria to diarrhea prevention — especially diarrhea caused by antibiotics — and the treatment of conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

And like any competent resource created by experts, the NIH points to the best thing you can do for your gut health: talk to a healthcare provider about your concerns.

When it comes to managing complicated GI issues, a healthcare provider will work as your partner to help find the management and treatment options that work for you.

You take control of your digestive health when you take an active role in finding a healthcare provider that makes a good partner — someone who listens, makes you feel comfortable and helps you make the right choices.

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the perfect way to calm bloat and support healthy digestion

Your Digestive Help: The Big Picture

That last point — the partnership with a healthcare professional — is more important than any fermented foods, milk products like cottage cheese or other sources of probiotics that you can grab off the shelf, and it brings more positive effects to boot. 

In the big picture, your digestive health is definitely about finding a healthy balance among the types of bacteria in your gut, but using a probiotic food source or supplement isn’t necessarily the right strategy.

What is the right strategy? That’s a conversation you need to have with a healthcare provider. 

If you’re dealing with digestive health issues, problems with your digestive process or debilitating or chronic digestive conditions, talk to a healthcare provider about it today. You may need more support than a grocery store product can help, but we can guarantee that expert advice will be an even easier pill to swallow than kimchi or a probiotic supplement.

5 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019, October 4). Keeping your gut in check. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2017/05/keeping-your-gut-check.
  2. Verna, E. C., & Lucak, S. (2010). Use of probiotics in gastrointestinal disorders: what to recommend?. Therapeutic advances in gastroenterology, 3(5), 307–319. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3002586/.
  3. Shahrokhi M, Nagalli S. Probiotics. Updated 2021 Nov 25. In: StatPearls Internet. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553134/.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Office of dietary supplements - probiotics. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Probiotics-HealthProfessional/.
  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Probiotics: What you need to know. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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