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Can probiotics help with Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Get to know the workings of your guts, and how probiotics may help reduce IBS symptoms.

a set of fermented food great for gut health - top view of glass bowls against wood: kimchi, red beets, apple cider vinegar, coconut milk yogurt, cucumber pickles, sauerkraut

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder affecting the gastrointestinal tract, with 1 in 5 Australians experiencing symptoms in their lifetime. Women tend to suffer more, around twice as much as men.

Most of the time, IBS causes stomach bloating, abdominal pain or discomfort that eases after a bowel movement or passing wind. It can also cause chronic diarrhoea and constipation.

While these symptoms are often inconvenient and can be embarrassing or distressing, IBS doesn’t cause permanent damage, and is not currently linked to other diseases.

What causes IBS?

The exact cause of IBS isn’t known. There are many possible factors that contribute to symptoms, including the nerves in the bowel being more sensitive than usual, abnormal contractions in the bowel, chronic inflammation of the bowel, and also psychological factors.

The symptoms of IBS can be triggered by infection, stress, food intolerance or particular medicines. Because of this, there are several ways to treat and manage IBS, in particular lifestyle and diet changes, and reviewing medications contributing to diarrhoea or constipation.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that may be good for your health, especially your digestive system. We usually think of bacteria as something bad that causes food poisoning and disease. But our bodies are full of bacteria, both good and bad, and probiotics are called ‘good’ or ‘helpful’ bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy.

Probiotics are also found in some foods, such as yoghurt, kefir, miso, dark chocolate, kombucha, and fermented products such as pickles and sauerkraut. They are also found in some supplements, which should only be taken on the advice of a doctor or Accredited Practicing Dietitian (APD).

Probiotics for IBS

Research around the use of probiotics to manage IBS is often conflicting, partly because there are so many different types of probiotics, and because further investigation is needed to find out how effective they really are for this condition. Different probiotics impact gut health in different ways, and what works for IBS in some may not work for others. Seeing a gastroenterologist or APD, who can help you determine which strains of probiotic bacteria may help relieve your gut irritation, is a good place to start.

How to manage IBS

First, see a GP or APD to properly diagnose you and help figure out if your triggers are food, medication or psychologically related. Second, develop a plan to manage these triggers (for example managing intake of high FODMAP foods, and/or meditation to reduce stress). And then finally, probiotics may be added in to help manage your symptoms.

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