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.1
In this article, we discuss specifically how friendly bacteria (or probiotics) may help rebalance your gut flora. But first, let’s talk briefly about IBS, and in particular its effect on gut health
What is IBS?
IBS is common, with around 5-10% of the population diagnosed. The condition affects your digestive system and presents as a collection of symptoms.
The causes aren’t fully known, but genetics, infection, unfortunate life events, and a disruption of communication between the gut and brain are all considered possibilities.2
How do I know if I have IBS?
Although there’s plentiful advice online to help you educate yourself on IBS symptoms, always seek a professional, medical diagnosis. This can often take time as the condition is only formally diagnosed at the point when all other possibilities are ruled out.
The main symptoms of IBS include
- Stomach pain
However, in addition to these main IBS symptoms, there are other complaints that are also associated with IBS. For example, flatulence, nausea, backache, incontinence, problems urinating and tiredness.
Types of IBS
There are three varieties of IBS:
- IBS-C – Constipation dominant
- IBS-D – Diarrhoea dominant
- IBS-M – Mixed bowel habits (constipation and diarrhoea)3
Your IBS symptoms depend on the type you suffer from.
How can probiotics help IBS?
The gut contains trillions of bacteria. This diverse genome from the 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.4
So, regaining balance is key to a healthy digestive system and may provide relief from IBS symptoms. Probiotics help by supporting the levels 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, if consumed in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the individual through their 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 live 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 the live bacteria.
So, it’s important that yoghurts are ‘live’ or contain ‘active’ ingredients.
Choose unpasteurized sauerkraut and select fermented pickles rather than ones soaked in vinegar for an increased chance of a beneficial effect.
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.5,6
Here are 3 things to look out for:
- 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 so look out for these in your probiotics
- 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
- Third-Party Testing - Opting for a probiotic that has undergone third-party testing by an independent lab can help ensure accuracy and quality.8
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.
It is important to note however that probiotics may not work for everyone and may have different effects based on the type of IBS that you are suffering with.
It is suggested to try a probiotic for a 4-week trial period and to discontinue or try a different brand if they don't work.9
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 20 October 2022