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For some people, IBS symptoms cause daily frustration. Could probiotics help?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common long-term condition affecting the digestive system. There's no known cure. But through careful diet and lifestyle choices, it’s often possible to control IBS symptoms. One way to do this is to try adding probiotics to your diet. Some research suggests an increase in healthy bacteria may help to reduce stomach bloating, cramping and stool frequency, for those with a diagnosis of IBS.

In this post, we discuss specifically how friendly bacteria (or probiotics) may help rebalance your gut flora. But first, let’s talk briefly about IBS and its particular effect on gut health.

How do I know if I have IBS?

Although there’s plentiful evidence online to allow you to educate yourself on IBS symptoms, always seek a professional, medical diagnosis. This can often take time. The condition is typically only formally diagnosed at the point when all other possibilities are ruled out.

What is IBS?

IBS affects the large intestine. Also known as the colon, this is the section of the gastrointestinal tract where three important parts of the digestion process happen.1

The three main functions of the large intestine:

  1. Absorb water and electrolytes
  2. Produce and absorb vitamins
  3. Form faeces from waste and move them to the rectum where they’re passed as stools

A variety of reactions in the large intestine can trigger IBS symptoms. There’s not a single cause. It could be because food passes through your gut too quickly. Or too slowly. Perhaps the nerves in your gut are oversensitive? Maybe stress is upsetting the balance? Or is it something genetic that you’ve inherited?

And not only is there a wide range of causes, the symptoms can be equally inconsistent.

Symptoms of IBS

  • Stomach pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation

However, in addition to these main IBS symptoms, there are other complaints that are also associated with IBS. For example, flatulence, nausea, back ache, incontinence, problems urinating and tiredness.

Types of IBS

There are three varieties of IBS:2
  1. IBS-C – Constipation dominant
  2. IBS-D – Diarrhoea dominant (IBS-D)
  3. IBS-M – Mixed bowel habits (constipation and diarrhoea)

Your IBS symptoms depend on the type you suffer with.

How can probiotics help IBS?

The gut contains trillions of bacteria. This diverse collection of microbes forms your gut microbiome, which helps to break down food and regulates bowel function. The large intestine is home to 95% of the gut microbiome. In people with IBS, symptoms may trigger when there’s some kind of imbalance between helpful, good bacteria and the other not so friendly species. This could manifest itself in the symptoms above.3

So, regaining the balance is key to a healthy digestive system and for relieving IBS symptoms. Probiotics help by topping up the level of good bacteria in the gut, which muffles the impact of the more hostile varieties.

How can I get good bacteria?

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that can contribute to a healthy gut microbiome. You’ll find them in certain types of food and in supplements.

Foods containing friendly bacteria in food

You can find probiotics naturally in a number of foods. For example, eating cultured dairy products and fermented foods can help to ensure your friendly bacteria levels remain topped up. Look out for yoghurts, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, tempeh, natto, miso, and kombucha.

But there is one thing you need to be sure of – the probiotic bacteria must be alive when you eat it. Some food processes, such as pasteurisation kills live bacteria. So, it’s important that yoghurts are ‘live’ or contain ‘active’ ingredients. Choose unpasteurised sauerkraut and select fermented pickles rather than ones soaked in vinegar.

Probiotic supplements

Friendly bacteria supplements are a useful alternative if eating fermented foods doesn’t appeal.  There are a huge range of probiotic products available and the impact they have on IBS symptoms varies considerably. Here are two things to look out for:4,5,6

  1. What bacteria does the product contain? Two commonly studied friendly bacteria strains that may help with the reduction of IBS symptoms are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium

  2. Will the bacteria reach your gut? To get to the large intestine, a probiotic must survive the acidic environment of the stomach. Buying from a reputable source is strongly advised7

Summary: Do probiotics help IBS symptoms?

A growing bank of research suggests increasing the consumption of good bacteria can help to bring balance to the variety of microbes in the gut. This can aid the function of the large intestine and reduce IBS symptoms. As a result, if consumed in the right quality and dosage, probiotics can reduce bloating, cramping and constipation for those with diagnosed IBS.

Last updated: 9 July 2020