Bloat & Digestion Issues? These 8 Supplements Are Here To Help

Certified holistic nutrition consultant By Lindsay Boyers
Certified holistic nutrition consultant
Lindsay Boyers is a nutrition consultant specializing in elimination diets, gut health, and food sensitivities. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
Medical review by Marvin Singh, M.D.
Integrative Gastroenterologist
Dr. Marvin Singh is an Integrative Gastroenterologist in San Diego, California. He is trained and board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology/Hepatology.
Woman Having Digestive Issues

Heartburn, reflux, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation (in that order) are the most common digestive complaints. Any of those sound familiar? According to the American Gastroenterological Association, 60 to 70 million individuals in the United States live with chronic digestive distress, ouch! While the underlying cause of these conditions may differ, research shows that certain supplements can help:

1. Probiotics 

When it comes to the best supplements for digestion, probiotics always top the list, and there's a good reason for that.  

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How they work:

The gut microbiome is intricately connected to digestive health. Gut bacteria break down certain carbohydrates, like starch and fiber, that we cannot digest ourselves. Through this fermentation process, they produce a byproduct called short-chain fatty acids (or SCFAs), which have been shown to help alleviate digestive issues.*

So, what's the problem? Another byproduct of this fermentation process is gas, which is fine in moderation, but some strains of bacteria produce more gas than others. When these gassy bacteria outnumber the good bacteria in the gut, the excessive gas can build up and cause bloating, pain, and other digestive issues. 

That's where probiotics come in. Probiotics are good bacteria that you can take in supplemental form to tip the numbers back in your favor and help keep the numbers of bad bacteria in check.*

How to take them:

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Each strain of bacteria is unique and performs different jobs in the gut, so you'll want to look for a targeted supplement. 

For example, Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacterium lactis can help support regularity in constipated individuals, while Lactobacillus acidophilus can reduce bloating and Saccharomyces boulardii has been shown to mitigate diarrhea.* When you combine strains of probiotics, they have a synergistic effect and can target a variety of digestive complaints.* That's why the best choice is typically a broad-spectrum probiotic supplement that combines several different targeted species.

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Safety and side effects:

Although probiotics are generally considered safe, it is possible for things to get worse before they get better. When you start taking a probiotic, you could experience increased gas and bloating, but these symptoms typically subside as your body gets used to the probiotic.

2. Prebiotics

Another gut microbiome supporting option: prebiotics.* 

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How they work:

Prebiotics are specific types of fibers that feed the good bacteria already living in your gut, so that they can grow and multiply on their own.* While it may take a little longer to support your good bacteria this way, over time, prebiotic supplements can give you some of the same gut benefits as probiotic supplements.*

How to take them:

Certain foods, like Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, and onions, are prebiotic foods, but if you need an extra dose, then you can also get them from supplements, like extracts of inulin and chicory root. According to research, inulin (which is the main prebiotic found in chicory root) is especially helpful for constipation.*

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Safety and side effects:

While the right amount for you depends on your digestive ailment, there's some evidence that 4 grams per day may be the sweet spot. Prebiotics are generally considered safe for long-term use, but, as with probiotics, taking too much at once can cause gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. If you experience any of these symptoms when taking prebiotics, then scale back how much you're taking and talk to your health care provider.

3. Digestive enzymes

When you eat, your pancreas releases specialized proteins called digestive enzymes that help break down the macronutrients in your food.* There are three major categories of digestive enzymes: amylases (which help digest carbohydrates), proteases (which help digest proteins), and lipases (which help digest fats).*

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How they work:

If your pancreas doesn’t produce enough of these digestive enzymes, which can happen to individuals who have an autoimmune disorder, then your food only gets partially digested. This can lead to uncomfortable symptoms like reflux, indigestion, gas, and bloating. Digestive enzyme supplements provide additional enzymes to help properly break down your food.*

Studies show that supplementing with digestive enzymes can be especially helpful for individuals with lactose intolerance and exocrine pancreatic insufficiency (EPI),* which can cause symptoms like gas, bloating, stomach pain, and diarrhea. Although the jury is still out, there's some promising research that a specific digestive enzyme, called AN-PEP, might help those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

In one small human clinical trial, researchers compared the effects of digestive enzyme supplements containing high or low doses of AN-PEP to a placebo in gluten-sensitive participants. They found that the supplements containing AN-PEP broke down most of the gluten before it reached the small intestine (which is where gluten can enter the blood, creating most of the problems associated with a sensitivity).

How to take them:

When it comes to digestive enzyme supplements, there are two major categories available: plant- or microbe-based and animal-based. According to one review, supplements that combine both forms of digestive enzymes seem to have the greatest positive effect on digestive issues.* That same review notes that typical daily intakes fall somewhere between 200 and 2,000 milligrams, depending on the reason you're taking them.

Safety and side effects:

In general, digestive enzymes are considered safe and don't typically cause side effects; however, if you take too many, it can cause nausea, diarrhea, and stomach cramps, so ease into it until you find your ideal amount.

4. L-glutamine 

Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the human body. Although it's used everywhere in your body, 30% of it is found in your gut. 

How it works: 

One of glutamine's most important jobs is to maintain the integrity of the small intestine.* It keeps intestinal junctions tight so that large, undigested particles can't pass through from your small intestine to your blood*—the hallmark of leaky gut, which can cause everything from diarrhea, constipation, gas, and bloating to headaches, brain fog, memory loss, and fatigue.

Glutamine is so important that one review calls out the amino acid as "the most important nutrient for leaky gut syndrome."*

How to take it:

There are two forms of glutamine: L-glutamine (the usable version) and D-glutamine (which your body can't use). Glutamine supplements come as L-glutamine, usually in the form of a powder that can be mixed into water or a beverage.

Safety and side effects: 

When taking an L-glutamine supplement, the right amount for you depends on your specific condition and medical history, but safe uses generally fall between 1,000 and 3,000 milligrams per day. Be careful not to take too much, though. High doses of L-glutamine can cause unwanted side effects like constipation, nausea, headache, stomach pain, cough, and pain in the extremities.

5. Slippery elm

Slippery elm extract, which is made from the bark of the slippery elm tree, is a botanical supplement.

How it works:

Although there is not a ton of research on this supplement, there is some evidence that slippery elm helps manage the body's inflammatory processes and soothes the digestive tract.

In one study, researchers gave participants with irritable bowel syndrome a supplement containing slippery elm. After taking the supplement, the participants experienced improvements in gas, bloating, and abdominal pain. Participants with constipation also had more frequent bowel movements and didn't have to strain as much when going to the bathroom.

Another study pointed out that, due to its carbohydrate structure, slippery elm might also act as a prebiotic, helping to support good bacteria in the gut.

How to take it:

Slippery elm comes in both powdered and capsule form.

Safety and side effects: 

Although there's not enough research to recommend a specific usage, supplements generally contain anywhere from 400 to 1,800 milligrams of slippery elm for daily use. The most common side effects of slippery elm extract are contact dermatitis (if it comes into contact with your skin) and allergic reactions.

6. Ginger root

Ginger could be the most versatile of the digestive supplements, aiding in everything from indigestion to abdominal cramps and bloating to nausea to constipation.* Because ginger contains more than 400 compounds, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how ginger helps promote good digestion, but one review credits its antioxidant properties.*

How it works:

Marvin Singh, M.D., an integrative gastroenterologist, adds that ginger acts as a prokinetic, which is a substance that speeds up emptying of the stomach and helps move things forward.* Because of this, Singh often recommends ginger as an adjunctive therapy for acid reflux.*

How to take it:

Most of the studies that looked at the effects of ginger used 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams per day. Because of its potent nature, many supplements offer ginger in capsule form, but there are also powdered supplements available. While ginger teas can also help aid in digestion, they're not as concentrated as pure ginger supplements.

Safety and side effects:

Although ginger supplements have very few known side effects, it's possible they can cause heartburn or stomach pain, especially if you take too much at once. However, it can be beneficial in reflux in others.

7. Psyllium husk

If you're plagued by constipation, then psyllium husk can be a simple, but effective, remedy. Psyllium husk is a type of fiber that humans can't fully digest. This might seem problematic, but it's actually the reason it is so helpful.

How it works:

When you take psyllium husk, it forms a gel in your intestines that traps water, increasing the bulk of your stool and making it easier to go to the bathroom. Psyllium can also positively affect your gut microbiome by acting as a prebiotic and supporting the number of bacteria that produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).

In one study, researchers compared the effects of one week of psyllium supplementation with a placebo in both constipated and healthy participants. They found that while the psyllium supplements supported good bacteria in both groups, the effect was more significant in those who were constipated.

How to take it:

Psyllium husk is most often available as a powder that you can mix into a drink or beverage, but it also comes in capsule form. While lower amounts of psyllium (7 to 14 grams per day) are beneficial, the greatest improvement seems to come from taking at least 20 grams daily with 16.9 ounces (the size of a standard water bottle) of water.

Safety and side effects:

Most people tolerate psyllium well, but some mild side effects, like stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting, can occur in individuals who are sensitive to it.

8. Vitamin D

Although gut health isn't the first thing most people think of when they hear "vitamin D," this micronutrient might be an overlooked piece of the digestive health puzzle. While the causes of inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are still largely under investigation, vitamin D could provide nutritional support for these conditions.*

How it works:

Vitamin D plays a role in the immune system and the inflammatory process.* While healthy vitamin D levels keep everything running smoothly, a drop in vitamin D can trigger the body's inflammatory response, making the existing symptoms of inflammatory digestive conditions worsen.*

Safety and side effects:

The current recommended amount of vitamin D is 800 to 1,000 IU per day, but some research shows that number may be too low. While you don't want to overdo it, because vitamin D has the potential to cause toxicity and calcium buildup if taken in excess, vitamin D3 (or cholecalciferol) is available in either capsule or liquid form and appears to be safe for most people.

Although digestive issues are extremely common, they don't have to become your normal. While all of these supplements can help digestion on their own, some of them are even more effective when taken together.*

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