As more attention is being given to the role of gut bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, doctors are looking to probiotic supplements for their potential in reducing IBS symptoms. Here you will learn why probiotics might be of help and how to choose a supplement that is right for you.
Probiotics are sometimes called "friendly" bacteria, as they are thought to support our immune system and enhance our health by keeping the numbers of "unfriendly" bacteria within our gut in check.
Your large intestine is filled with thousands of strains of bacteria—all a part of our gut flora. Optimal health calls for a favorable balance among all of these various strains. When unfriendly bacteria predominate—a condition known as intestinal dysbiosis—we may experience an inflammatory state that results in physical symptoms.
Taking a probiotic supplement is thought to help us to maintain a favorable balance of bacteria, which sets the stage for optimal health and may help with many things including gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, improving the immune system, preventing blood infections, increasing hormone balance, and regulating mood and brain health.
Although research on the use of probiotics for IBS is complicated due to the difficulty of making comparisons of the many different strains that are tested, for the most part, studies have shown a net positive effect of probiotics on the variety of symptoms that make up IBS. Just as promising is the fact that most studies have not shown any negative effect on IBS symptoms from taking probiotics and in my opinion, if you have IBS, taking a probiotic is a worthwhile try.
In multiple different studies, probiotic supplements have been found to:
- Decrease bloating
- Decrease flatulence
- Improve overall IBS symptoms
- Normalize the frequency of bowel movements
- Reduce abdominal pain
Keep in mind, it may not work for everyone but for IBS there is very limited harm of taking a probiotic.
What Type Is Best?
One of the most common questions I get is what probiotic should I take. The challenge of this question is trying to come to firm conclusions as to which strains are the most effective for easing IBS symptoms. As of now, there is some limited evidence that the following strains can be effective:
- Lactobacillus strains, (such as L. acidophilus, L. plantarum, L. rhamnosus)
- Bifidobacterium strains, (such as B. infantis (Align), B. longum, B. bifidum)
- Soil based organisms (SBO). These are particular species of microflora found in the soil that humans have been exposed to throughout the majority of human history.
- Saccharomyces boulardii probiotic. This is technically a health fungus for patients.
Manufacturers have been busy developing various probiotic formulations and assessing their effectiveness. As you make your choice, be sure the supplement you choose contains live strains of bacteria and be sure to store the supplement according to manufacturer's suggestions.
Probiotics in Food
Certain foods contain probiotics as a result of how they are prepared. Probiotic-containing foods that have undergone a process of fermentation which results in the production of varied and numerous strains of probiotic bacteria. Some examples of fermented foods containing probiotics include yogurt, traditionally prepared sauerkraut, and the Korean dish kimchi.
Fermented foods have long been thought to promote overall and digestive health, but there is little actual research on the subject.
For some people, consuming foods which are rich in probiotics will be enough to maintain a healthy gut flora. However, for those who have significant compromised gut microflora, supplementing with additional probiotics may be necessary.
If you choose to add fermented foods into your diet, be sure to start with small doses to assess your ability to tolerate these foods without worsening symptoms.
Prebiotics are fibrous substances that power the probiotics. The type of fiber making up prebiotics is not broken down by the digestive system, which allows it to travel all the way through and reach the good gut bacteria in the intestines and colon. While probiotics need to be regularly added to the system, prebiotics help to nourish and grow the probiotics already there and increase the probiotics’ overall function, making sure they give the maximum benefits to your body.
Prebiotics add several advantages over probiotics alone including increasing the potency of probiotics or making what they already do that much more effective.
Prebiotics are relatively easy to add to your diet. In fact, you probably already regularly eat a few high-prebiotic foods like onions, raw garlic, apple skin, and fresh beans.
The Bottom Line
With the hope of a positive benefit and minimal risk of side effects, probiotics may well be worth trying for your IBS. But 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 those who suffer from serious chronic illness. As with any supplement, it is essential that you speak with your physician first to help to ensure that you will not be putting your health at risk.
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