If you're one of the millions of Americans with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you know just how frustrating the condition can be. Fortunately, a number of remedies for IBS may help, including probiotics.
Lowdown on Probiotics
When most people think of bacteria, they usually think of something bad that makes you sick. The reality, however, is that your body has thousands of different types of bacteria, and many of them offer health benefits. When these living microorganisms are taken as medicine to provide health benefits, they are typically referred to as probiotics, according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD).
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A wide variety of probiotics are available at grocery stores, pharmacies and natural food stores. As with many natural remedies, the effectiveness of probiotics varies widely, depending on the specific treatment and medical condition. Many studies are underway to assess the potential benefits of probiotics for different ailments, says the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements.
One area where probiotics may be effective, though, is in treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The Mayo Clinic notes that abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas and diarrhea are just a few of the symptoms of IBS.
"Probiotics may play a role in relieving IBS symptoms," says Marta Ferraz Valles, RDN, a dietitian with the Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. "A recent systematic review evaluating 11 randomized controlled trials evaluated the effect of probiotic supplementation compared to placebo on symptoms in patients with IBS and found that the majority of studies show benefits."
Read more: What Is IBS, Exactly?
Best Probiotics for IBS
When it comes to which probiotics are most effective for treating the gas, bloating, abdominal pain and other symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, the answer is that a number of different kinds may be effective. A review article by the GI Society (the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research) looked at the results of a number of studies that examined the impact of probiotics on IBS symptoms, concluding that several types of probiotics showed benefits.
In particular, several strains of Lactobacillus bacteria seemed to help people with IBS symptoms. These included Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and a number of variants of Lactobacillus acidophilus.
Other recently studied probiotics that proved effective, according to the GI Society, included Bifidobacterium longum, Propionibacterium freudenreichii, Bifidobacterium infantis 35624, Enterococcus faecalis DSM 16440 and even a strain of E. coli bacteria (Escherichia coli DSM 17252).
Though a number of probiotics were shown to be effective at relieving IBS symptoms, the experts noted that the treatments combining more than one probiotic seemed to provide the most relief.
"My recommendation is to choose a multi-strain probiotic and take it for at least eight weeks," says Valles. "You may want to choose a probiotic that, among the different strains, contains Lactobacillus acidophilus, which seems to be present in the studies that have shown beneficial effects."
The cost and availability of probiotics for IBS can vary widely. Some of these options are readily available at grocery stores and pharmacies, while others may require a prescription. One in particular, Bifidobacterium animalis DN 173010, is available in Activia yogurt, which is available on grocery store shelves, notes the GI society.
A Word of Caution
While probiotics seem to have some benefit for IBS, Maya Feller, RD, a dietitian in private practice in Brooklyn, New York, and an adjunct professor at NYU, notes that IBS can be a complicated disease. Depending on the root cause of the disorder, she says, probiotics may not provide any benefit or, in some instances, could even cause harm.
To make sure individuals get the right treatment for their case of IBS, Feller recommends turning to the medical experts for help. "I recommend working with a qualified health care provider who will provide proper dosing and can assess the risks and benefits of beginning probiotic supplementation," she says.
- Mayo Clinic: “Irritable Bowel Syndrome”
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: “Probiotics and Antibiotics”
- Marta Ferraz Valles, RDN, dietitian/nutritionist, Institute for Digestive Health and Liver Disease, Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore
- GI Society: “Probiotics for Irritable Bowel Syndrome”
- Maya Feller, RD, dietitian, Brooklyn, New York, and adjunct professor, NYU.
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: "Probiotics"