IBS issues? Probiotics may just be what you need

IBS issues? Probiotics may just be what you need

Digestive issues may not be seen as serious ailments but anyone that’s suffered from one knows that they can be extremely uncomfortable, all-consuming and often keep you from wanting to leave the comfort, and close proximity, of your own bathroom.

Interestingly, many of those digestive complaints go on to be diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) because IBS is what is known as a “diagnosis of exclusion”. That is, it’s what you’re left with when other diseases have been ruled out.  But with statistics showing that at least 11% of the global population are affected by IBS you are far from alone in your bathroom anguish. [1]

The Causes of IBS

The exact cause of IBS isn’t known but symptoms of IBS include gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and abdominal pain. There is evidence that IBS can be triggered by such things as food intolerances, infections or even faulty communication between the brain and the intestinal tract, however there’s enough data to show that changes in the gut flora are what seem to most frequently drive IBS symptoms. [2]

The Benefits of Maintaining Good Gut Flora

The human gut harbors many diverse strains of bacteria (and other tiny microbes) that live in our digestive tracts and are collectively known as ‘gut flora’. They play a hugely important role in our health and wellbeing. [3]

This community of microorganisms are mostly frequently brought to our attention when we’re prescribed antibiotics. Antibiotics may be a modern miracle but the collateral damage inflicted on good bacteria while annihilating the bad bacteria can leave us with a whole host of other unpleasant issues. Doctors frequently suggest investing in a probiotic whilst you’re taking antibiotics in order to keep your gut flora in balance.

But stress, illness and bad dietary habits can also wreak havoc on happy gut flora. [4] So, it only makes sense that many people may need to introduce a little more “good” bacteria into their guts on a regular basis.

Good gut flora has been shown to improve immune health, regulate cholesterol and hormone levels, support healthy weight, boost energy and reduce yeast infections. But the research gets even better. According to several Harvard Health studies, a good balance of gut bacteria may also help to prevent cancers and heart disease. [5]

Probiotics and IBS

The World Health Organization’s definition of a probiotic is: “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. [6] That is, probiotics are thousands of live, healthy, “good” microorganisms introduced into our gut flora in order to bring back the balance.

Probiotics can inhibit “bad” bacterias and viruses and control gut inflammation. They can also reduce sensitivity associated with stress and stabilize the natural bacteria living in the colon.

Most importantly for IBS sufferers, several large studies have shown an improvement in IBS symptoms with the use of probiotics. [7]

The benefit appears greatest for the bifidobacteria species of probiotics or combinations which include bifidobacteria [8] and there is growing evidence that B. infantis is in fact the frontrunner for the treatment of IBS, though much larger, controlled studies do still need to be performed. [9] You can always check exactly which probiotics are in your blend by checking the ingredient list on the side of your packet or jar. 

Current research tends to also favor “controlled-release” pills, which have a stronger coating and ensure that more bacteria in the pill survive our gastric acids and bile and reach our intestines alive and ready to work. [10]

Probiotics can’t change the gut permanently, so much like your body needs a daily intake of  vitamins and minerals, a daily intake of probiotics is required for continued benefits.

Natural probiotic sources

Natural sources are always more cost effective and sustainable than a pill and the good news is that probiotics can be found all around you in. Foods which contain exceptionally high levels of live, healthy microorganisms include natural yoghurt, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, Kefir-style drinks, sourdough bread and for the hipsters among us —kombucha. Certain soft fermented cheeses like Cheddar, Feta and particularly Gouda also make the cut.

 Using Prebiotics in Tandem with Probiotics

Prebiotics come from types of carbs (mostly fiber) that humans can’t digest. But the beneficial bacteria in your gut like to eat this fiber which in turn promotes the growth of more good bacteria in your gut, naturally. Data shows that consumption of certain prebiotics can lead to some compelling health benefits, such as providing anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties and assisting in mineral absorption, metabolism and even atopic skin diseases like eczema.[11] Chickpeas, lentils, garlic, barley and rye, pistachios, nectarines, watermelon, dried figs, leeks, beets and snow peas are all great choices for increasing your natural prebiotics.[12]

It should be noted that many IBS sufferers are told to avoid insoluble fibres as they can increase symptoms. This is based on the popular low FODMAP diet and a low FODMAP diet may considerably improve IBS symptoms in some sufferers. Bananas and tomatoes can be a great substitute here as both are great prebiotic sources that are low in FODMAPS.

However, recent studies do suggest that as the long-term health effects of a strict low FODMAP diet are not known, inadequate nutrient intake and potential negative effects from altering the gut microbiota (flora) long term are a real concern with the low FODMAP plan. [13]

A Final Thought

Though the causes of IBS are still hotly debated and a cure is unfortunately nowhere in sight, evidence continues to lead medical studies towards the same key areas, most notably gut health.

Unfortunately you can lead a healthy lifestyle and still battle with IBS, just like you can be a healthy person and also be living with an imbalance in their gut flora.

Though probiotics are not a cure-all for IBS, evidence does suggest that using them as a supplement can provide solid results in reducing the symptoms of IBS in some people [14] and when you’re living with IBS symptoms, it’s certainly nice to have a relatively cheap and easy option to experiment with.

As a bonus, keeping your gut healthy and balanced means that you may just keep that next nasty cold at bay too.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3921083/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4317767/

[3] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867412001043

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425030/

[5] http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/can-gut-bacteria-improve-your-health

[6] http://www.nature.com/nrgastro/journal/v11/n8/full/nrgastro.2014.66.html

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18532993

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3424311/

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2886445/

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3424311/

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18215222

[12] http://www.med.monash.edu.au/cecs/gastro/prebiotic/faq/#6

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27382323

[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3424311/