Published March 25, 2021
Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, is a regular source of discomfort and misery for many. This chronic condition can cause such unpleasant symptoms as bloating, constipation and diarrhea. And unfortunately, there is no cure – in medical terminology, a ‘chronic’ condition is one that persists for an indefinite period, sometimes improving but never entirely disappearing. But don’t despair: there are ways to get ahead of those symptoms. Leading a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet and minimising stress can all make a big difference. As can looking after your gut.
Digesting our daily food and drink is a complex undertaking, one that involves the interaction of multiple systems within the body. One of these are the so-called gut flora: microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi that live within the digestive tract. But rather than causing disease, gut flora inhibit any pathogens in the food we eat by occupying their space and absorbing all available nutrients. They also play a significant role in digestion itself via the production of enzymes that help to break down substances that our bodies would otherwise struggle to digest.
An unhealthy lifestyle and illness can both deplete your gut ‘microbiome’ (gut flora population), as can the use of antibiotics. The latter is not so surprising when you consider the function of these widely prescribed medications. An unbalanced gut microbiome, in which some bacteria run rampant and others diminish – is called ‘dysbiosis’ – and this has been linked to IBS and other health complications.
In recent decades, probiotics have become an increasingly popular way to help relieve the symptoms of IBS.
So what are probiotics?
Probiotics are a range of foods and supplements that contain live bacteria. Including these in your diet or taking supplements can encourage the regrowth of healthy gut flora and a rebalancing of your microbiome, improving overall gut health.
Probiotic-rich foods include:
- Kefir (a fermented milk drink)
- Kombucha (fermented tea)
- Tempeh (fermented soya)
- Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)
You may have noticed a common theme there! Lactobacillus acidophilus is perhaps the probiotic bacteria most commonly encountered in the supermarket, but there are plenty of others.
While such foods are rich in health-boosting probiotics, let’s be realistic – these aren’t corner shop items and they are not always easy to find. Probiotic supplements are a more practical solution for many of us, whether in pill or liquid form.
Do probiotics help IBS?
The good news is that yes, they do and this has been demonstrated in a number of clinical studies.
Like most health conditions, IBS varies from person to person, with certain symptoms predominating in some sufferers and different symptoms dominating in others. The best probiotics for IBS types vary.
- If diarrhea is your predominant symptom, look out for saccharomyces boulardii. This yeast was linked to a reduction in gut inflammation in a 2014 study. Saccharomyces boulardii is available in supplement form.
- If bloating is the primary symptom, a better focus might be the probiotic strains bifidobacterium infantis, bifidobacterium bifidum and bifidobacterium lactis, all of which have been shown in clinical trials to relieve bloating. Again, these bacteria are available in supplement form.
- Meanwhile, sufferers of constipation-dominant IBS (also known as ‘IBS-C’) could look out for the lactobacillus strains acidophilus, reueri, plantarum and rhamnosus, all of which have been linked to a reduction in symptoms in a third study.
Of course there is always a degree of individual variation, so get ready for some trial and error!
Written by Bev Walton
Food Writer and Nutritionist, dietician
A chef of over 35 years with experience in all types of cuisine, dietary plans, recipe development, health and nutrition. I have been writing for over 10 years for both magazines, websites and ghostwriting for ebooks, Kindle and fully published books. I have a degree in nutrition and dietetics and work with restaurants and organisations within the healthcare profession. I am also able to take high quality photographs of recipes created. No writing task is too great, and whilst I specialise in the above, I am able to write about any topic you throw at me. Member of the Guild of food writers.