The Low-Down on Probiotics in IBS

The Low-Down on Probiotics in IBS

Probiotics are a hot topic in gut health. But like with most hot topics, there is a lot of misinformation and misconceptions surrounding them.  While live bacterial cultures have been used in fermented foods like yogurt for ages, the science behind probiotics is relatively new. Current research supports that supplementation with probiotics may improve symptoms, improve bowel function, and reduce abdominal pain and bloating in people with IBS.1 However, careful consideration must be taken into the strain, dosage, and treatment duration of probiotics before starting a course to maximize benefits.

What is and is not a probiotic?

With increasing interest in probiotics and “good bacteria” there has been a rise in fermented foods on the market. With these foods has come a lot of confusion over whether they contain probiotics or not.

Many fermented foods contain live and active cultures, however, to be labelled as probiotic, they must meet the definition of “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host.” Because many fermented foods are not able to meet these criteria, due to low colony count or insufficient research, they are not considered probiotic. That’s not to say that fermented foods aren’t healthy for the gut and a great addition to the diet, but they will not give the same benefit as a probiotic food or supplement.

Probiotic strains – which bacteria should I choose?

Looking through probiotic supplements will lead you to a dizzying array of bacterial strains. However, not all probiotics are equal or effective in relieving IBS symptoms. It’s important to know which strain has been researched and tested for your symptom or health concern.

The most common strains that provide symptom relief for IBS are Bifidobacterium Longum and Lactobacillus Rhamnosus. A great information source on probiotic strains and current research is the Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products in Canada.2

Dosing – how much probiotics do I need?

Making probiotics even more confusing is the fact that there are no clear guidelines at this time for dosing. It’s important to note that more bacteria is not necessarily better. In fact, a meta-analysis of probiotics concluded that lower dosing may have more benefit (equal or less than 10 billion CFUs)3 At present, best practice is to follow dosing guidelines set out by supporting research or manufacturer recommendations.

Consistency in dosing is also important; probiotics should be taken for at least 1 month before reassessing symptoms. While a minimum one-month treatment time is recommended, supplements are not meant for long-term use. Research has shown that best results are found with shorter treatment times.4

Setting expectations on probiotics

Probiotics are promising for symptom relief in IBS, however, it’s important to remember that IBS is multi-faceted and therefore not all people will have the same results. Like all things, take time to consider the cost versus benefit. If probiotic supplementation does not provide any symptom relief, further supplementation is not warranted.

The bottom line on probiotic supplementation is that they are not a cure. Instead, they should be used alongside IBS management strategies, like diet changes, sleep, medication, exercise and stress management. Working with a dietitian or physician trained in IBS can help determine which management strategies will be best for you!

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