Does eating yogurt, including store-bought brands like Dannon's Activia, help relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) like pain and bloating? Maybe. Or maybe not.
Studies on the benefits of yogurt and other probiotics (including certain foods and supplements) in the treatment of IBS have yielded mixed results and, as a result, both the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) and the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research say more research is needed.
IBS is considered a functional bowel disorder, which means that it causes problems with how your stomach and bowels work. As many as 45 million people in the U.S. live with IBS, and it affects twice as many women as men, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Exactly what causes IBS is not fully understood, but a growing body of evidence suggests that an imbalance between good and bad bacteria in your gut may set the stage for IBS symptoms.
Read more: The 10 Worst Foods for Bloating
Does Activia Help IBS?
Dannon's Activia contains a probiotic culture called Bifidobacterium animalis lactis DN 173 010/CNCM I-2494. The company states that consuming Activia yogurt twice a day for two weeks, as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle "may help reduce the frequency of minor digestive discomfort," such as bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort and tummy rumbling. Consumers are encouraged to "Take the Activia 14-Day Gut Health Challenge" to support gut health.
"There is some evidence to suggest that Activia can help mild symptoms such as gas, bloating and digestive distress," says William J. Bulsiewicz, MD, a gastroenterologist in Mount Pleasant, S.C., and author of the forthcoming book Fiber Fueled. The two-week test may be worth a try, he says, adding that, if you do, "keep a diary to see how — or if — it affects any IBS symptoms."
What Science Says About Probiotics and IBS
The risks of taking probiotics for IBS are minimal for people with normal, healthy immune systems, says the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research. Yet questions remain about the effectiveness of taking probiotics for IBS, and that may be because "different probiotics are like different drugs," yielding different study results, the society points out. What's more, different people experience IBS in different ways.
The British Dietetic Association examined 35 clinical trials of probiotics to determine which strains and dosages could be recommended to adults for the management of IBS. The association's review, published in October 2016 in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, found no strain or dose was consistently effective in improving IBS symptoms or quality of life. The research team said more high-quality trials are needed to determine the effectiveness of probiotic therapy in IBS.
That said, there's no serious downside to seeing whether yogurt might help your gut. NIDDK advises people who want to try probiotics for symptom relief to speak with their physician.
Read more: How Much Yogurt Do You Need for Probiotics?
Other Things to Consider
Although dairy can be a trigger for some people with IBS, Johns Hopkins Medicine says yogurt may be less troublesome. That's because the bacteria break down lactose, the sugar that can make you gassy. You can also look for lactose free options.
But there is something else you need to consider. "If you regularly consume yogurt over the course of time, you may be doing more harm than good," Dr. Bulsiewicz says, noting its sugar content. "We know that added sugar feeds the bad bacteria, and while you may not feel worse in the short term, over the long term, all of this sugar may alter the bacteria balance in your gut in a way that is no longer beneficial."
Other Steps to Relieve IBS Symptoms
Before turning to probiotics, Dr. Bulsiewicz suggests trying prebiotics — types of dietary fiber that feed the good bacteria in your gut and make stool softer and easier to pass, he explains. Put another way, this targets the underlying cause and the symptoms of IBS.
When upping your fiber intake, start slow and low, he warns. If you consume too much fiber too soon, it can cause gas and may trigger IBS symptoms. Adults should aim for 22 to 34 grams of fiber a day, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
To avoid any negative effects of additional fiber, the NIDDK suggests upping your intake in increments of just 2 to 3 additional grams a day. Also drink enough water, Dr. Bulsiewicz adds. Staying hydrated helps the fiber pass more efficiently through your body.
A low-FODMAP diet may also ease IBS symptoms, he explains. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. A type of carbohydrate, they feed the microbes in your gut, but not in a good way. Foods that contain loads of FODMAPs include apples, artichokes, asparagus, beans, cabbage, onions, dairy products, watermelon, foods with high-fructose corn syrup and wheat and rye products. Ask your doctor if a low-FODMAP diet could be right for you.
Is This an Emergency?
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Facts about IBS”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Children"
- Canadian Society of Intestinal Research: "Probiotics for Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- Dannon Activia: "Activia Probiotic Yogurt Benefits"
- Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics: "British Dietetic Association Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews and Evidence‐based Practice Guidelines for the Use of Probiotics in the Management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Adults (2016 update)"
- NIDDK: "Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine:"5 Foods to Avoid if You Have IBS"
- Dannon Activia: "Activia Vanilla Probiotic Yogurt"
- Dannon Activia: "Activia Light Vanilla Probiotic Yogurt"
- NIDDK: "Eating, Diet, and Nutrition for Irritable Bowel Syndrome"