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Before You Take Probiotics for IBS

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Updated June 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Before You Take Probiotics for IBS
Photo: Mark Weiss/Getty Images

Have you heard about probiotics, the so-called "friendly bacteria"? Given all of the advertising hype regarding the beneficial effects of probiotics on digestive health, it would make sense to wonder if probiotics can have a positive effect on IBS symptoms. Here is an overview on what is known about the use of probiotics for IBS.

What Are Probiotics?

Our intestinal systems contain a large amount of bacteria, officially called the "gut flora", and optimal health calls for a balance among the various types. Probiotics are sometimes called “good bacteria” because in large numbers they are thought to boost the immune system and help to balance out so-called “bad bacteria” -- those that are disease-causing or who in large numbers (a condition known as intestinal dysbiosis) contribute to an inflammatory state that results in physical symptoms. The thought behind the current marketing frenzy is that ingesting increased numbers of probiotics through the use of supplements or probiotic-enhanced foods will help maintain a favorable balance of bacteria.

Will They Help My IBS?

Although research on the use of probiotics for IBS is complicated due to the difficulty of making comparisons of the many strains that are tested, for the most part, most studies have shown a positive effect of probiotics on the variety of symptoms that make up IBS. More importantly, most studies have not shown any negative effect on IBS symptoms from taking probiotics. The difficult part is making any conclusions as to which strains are most effective.

Probiotics and Leaky Gut Syndrome

Some studies have shown an increase in intestinal permeability, commonly called "leaky gut syndrome", in some IBS patients.  This state of affairs results in an inflammatory immune system response to certain foods.   Taking probiotic supplements is theorized to help improve the balance of the gut flora which may then help to repair the permeability problem.

Which Type Should I Buy?

With the hope of a positive benefit, and minimal risk of side effects, probiotics may well be worth trying for your IBS.   You have the option of taking a probiotic supplement or consuming probiotic foods.

There are many probiotic supplements available.  Research has not yet shown a specific advantage of one strain versus another.  Just be sure to choose a brand that contains a high number of live organisms.

The British Dietetic Association recommends that you try a probiotic supplement for a period of four weeks to see if it has any effect on your symptoms. If not, they recommend that you try a different product with different strains of probiotic bacteria.

You also have the option of consuming foods and drinks that contain probiotics.  Some people with IBS do not do well with yogurt, due to problems with lactose or casein (a protein found in dairy products).  Luckily, there are many other food and drink options.  Fermented foods have long been used in traditional societies for digestive health.  It is theorized that fermented foods hold an advantage over probiotic supplements as you get more of a variety of bacterial strains.

As with any over-the-counter product, before you try probiotics, remember to check with your doctor. (Probiotics may be harmful to individuals who have weakened immune systems or suffer from serious chronic illness.)

Essential Reading from Dr. Barbara Bolen, Your IBS Expert

Sources:

Clarke, G., et.al. "Review article: probiotics for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome – focus on lactic acid bacteria" Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics 2012 35:403-413.

McKenzie, Y.A., et.al. "British Dietetic Association evidence-based guidelines for the dietary management of irritable bowel syndrome in adults" Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics 2012 25:20-274.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.

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