If you’re suffering with the symptoms of IBS — bloating, pain, diarrhea, constipation, or a combination of all of them — you’re probably ready to do whatever it takes to feel better.
Maybe your doctor told you that there’s nothing wrong with you. I’m amazed at how often that happens. Patients come to me all the time at their wits end. They’re nearly ready to give up hope because they were told there was either “nothing wrong” with them or that there was “nothing they could do”.
That is 100% not true. If you’re struggling with stomach or digestive issues — whether or not you have a formal diagnosis — there are things you can do. And if you have IBS, or you suspect you might, one of the most powerful tools available is probiotics.
Probiotics help get more “good bacteria” into your gut. Probiotics help you by lining the surface of your GI tract to protect it from harmful organisms, strengthening the bowel wall, eradicating “bad” bacteria, and regulating immune system responses. If you’d like a deep dive into the microbiome and probiotics, check out my article: What’s the Big Deal with Probiotics? A Dietitian Weighs In.
How Your Microbiome affects Your IBS:
Your gut bacteria (microbiome) plays a HUGE role in your overall health, specifically in areas like digestion, nutrient absorption, immune function, and even mental health.
Your microbiome begins to form when you’re born and continues to evolve over the course of your life depending on your food, medications, supplements, and environmental exposures.
Your microbiome can sustain damage from things like antibiotic use, antibacterial soaps/hand sanitizer, harsh disinfecting cleaning products.
Your microbiome contains more cells than your body does, but it’s also delicate. And it’s important that it stays in balance. We all have some uninvited guests in our microbiome. But if the good bacteria stays strong it can keep the bad bacteria from causing problems.
If your microbiome gets damaged, you can develop an imbalance called dysbiosis. And when your microbiome is out of balance a variety of problems can develop including:
😳 Difficulty urinating
😳 Vaginal or rectal itching
😳 Chest pain
😳 Skin irritations like rash or redness
😳 Difficulty concentrating
😳 Mental health issues like anxiety and depression
Notice the overlap above between IBS symptoms and some of the symptoms of dysbiosis. In fact, there is a clear link between IBS symptoms and changes in gut bacteria. People with IBS have lower amounts of specific strains of good bacteria including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. And they have higher levels of harmful bacteria like Streptococcus, E. coli and Clostridium.
These changes in your gut microbiome can influence IBS symptoms in a variety of ways.
Dysbiosis (gut bacteria imbalance) may cause:
👎 Increased inflammation
👎 Sensitivity to intestinal gas
👎 Reduced immune function
👎 Changes is digestive motility (how food moves through your body)
But it’s not just about the bacteria in your large intestine. Studies show that up to 84% of IBS patients also experience an overgrowth of bacteria in their small intestines. Small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) can also cause IBS-like symptoms too. You can learn more about SIBO by checking my article, How Do I Know if I Have SIBO? Painful Signs to Watch Out For.
It’s important to make sure your gut bacteria is healthy and in balance. And probiotics are one piece of that puzzle.
Probiotics and IBS
Let’s start with the bad news — probiotics are not a cure-all for IBS. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. But taking the right probiotic — along with dietary and lifestyle changes + supplements — can make a big difference.
Evidence that supports probiotic use in the treatment of IBS is growing. Studies show that IBS patients taking probiotics reported a decrease in symptoms — including pain, bloating, and gas. In one study, IBS patients received a Bacillus probiotic for 90 days. These patients reported decreased bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, better bowel movements and higher quality of life than those receiving the placebo.
Research is still being done on specific probiotic strains and how they affect IBS symptoms. There is evidence that individual strains of probiotic may help with different issues. For example, there are seven types of probiotic that have been found to reduce abdominal pain in IBS.
A variety of studies show that probiotics can reduce many of the troublesome IBS symptoms including:
✅ Abdominal pain
✅ Issues with stool consistency
While there are certain strains of probiotic that seem to target specific IBS symptoms, the general consensus is that a multi-strain probiotic is the best way to go.
Taking probiotics isn’t like taking a medication where you can expect to see results in hours or even days. Balancing your microbiome takes time. So most people need to take probiotics for a few weeks before they see the full results.
How do probiotics help IBS?
Scientists are still studying the effects of probiotics on both healthy people and people suffering with IBS. But so far probiotics are proposed to improve IBS symptoms by:
👍 Keeping harmful bacteria from overgrowing
👍 Strengthening the barriers of the immune system
👍 Fighting inflammation
👍 Regulating bowel movements
👍 Balancing gut flora to reduce gas production
👍 Improving the gut’s sensitivity to gas buildup
Does it matter which probiotic I take?
Not all probiotics are created equal. And unfortunately, many probiotics don’t do what they claim.
A Canadian study from 2004 looked at 10 over-the-counter products that claimed to contain probiotic bacteria. When these products were tested, some contained the strains listed on the labels. Some contained different strains than what they claimed. And some had no organisms at all.
So it’s important to make sure that the probiotic food or supplement you are relying on is really giving you what it claims.
In a couple weeks, I’ll do a deep dive on how to choose probiotics to make sure you are getting the full benefits — and not just wasting your money. So stay tuned!
If you’re tired of dealing with IBS symptoms and you want personalized answers and solutions, let’s talk. In my practice, I use evidence-based practices + lab testing and symptom analysis to get to the bottom of your health concerns. We’ll work together to get you answers and formulate a plan to help you feel better!