A woman sitting on a kitchen counter eating probiotic yogurt.
One of the best ways to consume probiotics is via yogurt.

What to Know About Probiotics for IBS

In recent years, probiotics have become increasingly popular. The manufacturers of these supplements claim they have numerous benefits, including relieving digestive issues, like IBS. But do probiotics for IBS work, or is this a case of false advertising? Let’s take a look.

What Are Probiotics?

Humans have thousands of tiny organisms, such as bacteria and yeast, living inside their digestive systems. This miniature ecosystem is known as the gut flora or microbiome.

These microorganisms play an essential role in our health and well-being. Good bacteria include species like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. They help to maintain effective digestion, as well as supporting healthy cardiovascular and immune function. They also help to keep bad bacteria like Streptococcus and E. coli under control.

If the gut’s levels of good bacteria fall, bad bacteria can begin to multiply. This condition is known as intestinal dysbiosis and it may affect people with or without IBS. Probiotics are supplements that boost the body’s levels of helpful bacteria. By doing this, they help to restore a natural and healthy balance to the microbiome.

How Can Probiotics Help IBS?

People with IBS can suffer from a wide variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea. The exact cause is still unknown, but scientists believe that various factors play a role.

Firstly, people with IBS seem to have poor communication between their guts and their brains. This dysfunction leads to irregular intestinal contractions and greater sensitivity to pain.

Secondly, IBS can lead to dysbiosis and background inflammation in the digestive tract. IBS can also cause weaknesses in the lining of the intestines, sometimes known as leaky gut.

Therefore, probiotics may help IBS in several different ways:

  • Rebalancing the levels of good and bad bacteria in the gut.
  • Normalizing intestinal contractions.
  • Reducing gas and sensitivity to gas.
  • Relieving inflammation.
  • Strengthening the intestinal lining.

Thanks to these effects, probiotics can help to reduce IBS symptoms, such as abdominal pain and bloating. Additional benefits of probiotics for people with or without IBS include supporting heart health and immunity.

Different Ways of Taking Probiotics

Probiotics are classified as a food supplement, and they are available in many different forms. They come as pills or capsules that you can swallow with a glass of water. Another popular way of taking probiotics is as a yogurt or drink.

In addition to these supplements, there are several foods and drinks that are naturally rich in probiotics. Most of these are fermented foods that are packed with beneficial bacteria. Some good examples of probiotic foods and drinks:

However, you should note that most commercial products are pasteurized, meaning that they will have little beneficial activity. For the best results, you need to ferment your own probiotics at home.

Another possible downside of this is that some fermented foods are high in FODMAPs. These are a kind of carbohydrate that can sometimes aggravate IBS symptoms.

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Are Probiotics Effective for IBS?

So far, research into probiotics for IBS has yielded inconsistent results. Some studies find positive results, while others demonstrate little benefit. For example, one 2019 review found that only 7 of 11 studies (63.6%) showed significant improvements in IBS symptoms with probiotic use.

One of the problems with researching probiotics is that there are thousands of different strains of bacteria. Some are more beneficial than others and some have little to no effect. It appears that the strain of bacteria, dose and duration of treatment can all influence the results of studies. It is also likely to depend on the individual’s specific symptoms and biological makeup.

Another major issue is that probiotics are classed as a food supplement rather than a medicine. This means that they are not subject to strict regulation and companies can get away with selling low-quality fare. Some probiotics contain very few active ingredients, while others may have additives that can worsen IBS.

Things to look out for when buying probiotics:

  • The strain or strains of bacteria in the product.
  • Whether the bacteria in the product are live.
  • The dosage of the bacteria in the product.
  • Additives such as fructose, lactose, or artificial sweeteners.

The 2019 review suggested that probiotics containing more than one strain of bacteria are most likely to be effective. It also suggested taking them for a minimum of eight weeks to maximize their benefits. These are crucial factors to consider when making a purchase.

Finally, ensure you store your probiotics carefully, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. This may involve keeping them fresh in a refrigerator.

Pros and Cons of Probiotics for IBS

The Pros:

  • Probiotics may reduce some IBS symptoms (gas and bloating).
  • Helps maintain a healthy gut flora by increasing good bacteria and reducing bad bacteria.
  • Relatively safe and unlikely to cause serious side effects.
  • Available as a supplement or in certain probiotic foods and drinks.
  • Cost-effective compared with other medication.

The Cons:

  • Studies on probiotics for IBS have yielded inconclusive results so far.
  • Some commercial products contain few beneficial ingredients.
  • Some people may experience worsening of symptoms, especially early on.
  • Many fermented foods and drinks are pasteurized, leaving them with little benefit.
  • Cheaper brands may be low-quality.

In Review

If you decide to try probiotics for IBS, be sure to choose a reputable brand. Always read the label, and look for positive customer reviews online. The good news is that probiotics are generally considered safe and well-tolerated. Therefore, there is little risk in giving them a try.