If you think that taking a supplement might be the solution to poor gut health, think again. Sometimes, a cheeky probiotic can cause other issues such as constipation.
Supplements and vitamins are supposed to make you healthier. You take a daily vitamin B complex to feel more energised, a zinc tablet to ward off illness and vitamin D to… well, maintain general wellbeing. But we also know that you can have too much of a good thing. It’s not unheard of to overdose on vitamin A, for example.
But what happens when it comes to gut health? Can some supplements leave us feeling constipated or running for the loo? And if so, how can we avoid falling foul of these digestive side effects?
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Daniel O’Shaughnessy, aka The Naked Nutritionist, explains that some vitamins can cause constipation. He says that if you aren’t used to probiotics, for example, then you might feel constipated afterwards. “They may cause issues if you’re not drinking enough water throughout the day, and this can happen with as little as one capsule and a low strength, particularly if you have IBS.”
Constipation from probiotics isn’t a particularly common side effect; in fact, many find that taking gut supplements actually helps to regulate bowel movements. But if you do try some and find that you’re unable to poo, then it’s typically a sign that you’re not consuming enough fibre or water. Both are easily rectified: up your intake of fibre-rich foods (think fruit, veg and whole grains – carbs) and try drinking more fluid than usual.
As well as aiming for two or three litres of water a day, O’Shaughnessy suggests taking a break from whatever supplement you’re currently taking for a few days, before trying it again at a lower dose.
It’s also important to get to the root of the issue. If you’re taking probiotics because you’re struggling with certain digestive issues, mild constipation may well be a sign that the supplements are working.
On the other hand, supplements can knock our natural balance of bacteria and vitamin levels off balance, so constipation could be a sign that something’s gone haywire. Before taking supplements to help with digestive issues, you’re best off visiting your GP to make sure that there’s nothing else at play.
Supplements for constipation
As for taking supplements for constipation, you’re definitely best off trying a food-first approach. If you’re eating 30 plants a week or nailing your five portions of fruit and veg a day, look at what kinds of carbs you’re consuming. A sludgy digestive system could be caused by years of avoiding carbs in favour of keto foods, for example. Go for whole grains, fermented breads like sourdough, and plenty of oats.
Then you might want to consider taking something like magnesium, which attracts water to your intestines. That can lead to more frequent bowel movements and reduced straining. A 28-day study of 34 women with mild-to-moderate constipation found that taking 1.5g of magnesium oxide a day significantly improved stool consistency, quality of life and digestion speed compared to a placebo.
Registered nutritionist Marjolein Dutry van Haeften previously explained to Stylist that magnesium oxide isn’t very well absorbed by the body and the benefit could be more regular bowel movements because the mineral is staying in the gut. Not great if you want the other benefits of magnesium, such as reduced stress, but very useful if you want to be a bit more regular. If you are interested in the other benefits of magnesium, however, try taking magnesium glycinate, which is better absorbed.
And if eating a load of seeds, grains and veg isn’t enough to get you going, you could try taking a fibre supplement like psyllium, which you can either supplement or buy as a cooking ingredient. The gel-forming soluble fibre retains a lot of water and has been found to improve stool consistency. Oh, and it has the added benefit of being a rather good vegan egg substitute.
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