Q: I suffer from irritable bowel syndrome. Could taking a probiotic supplement help relieve my symptoms?
A: Depending on what your symptoms are and what strain of probiotics you take, there’s good evidence to suggest that a supplement very well may help you.
Probiotics are strains of live, “friendly” bacteria that, when eaten, colonize your intestines and have been proven to provide some sort of health benefit. There are countless different strains of probiotics that have different effects in the body, so the trick is to find a specific strain (or combination thereof) that has been demonstrated to benefit people with your specific symptom. The most commonly-studied strains of probiotic bacteria in people with IBS belong to the Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus genuses, which you may see abbreviated on yogurt labels or supplement facts panels as “B.” or “L.” preceding the name of the specific species.
The body of available research suggests that strains of Bifidobacteria alone and combinations of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus may be more effective at reducing common symptoms of IBS, particularly gas, bloating and diarrhea, than Lactobacillus (or other species of probiotics) alone. With this evidence in mind, if you’re looking for relief from the IBS symptoms listed above, I’d suggest the following:
- If you tolerate and enjoy dairy products, look for a brand of yogurt that lists the genus and species of live and active cultures it contains on the ingredient label and includes bacteria from the Bifidobacteria genus in particular (it may start with the initial “B.”) So long as a product contains Bifidobacteria and carries the “live and active cultures” seal, it will probably be just as effective as a more expensive yogurt that markets itself as containing “probiotics,” so don’t be fooled by marketing hype. When choosing a yogurt, opt for plain rather than sweetened, flavored varieties, since the excess sugar in most yogurts may inadvertently contribute to diarrhea in predisposed people. And although diet yogurts are sugar-free, the chemical sweeteners they contain may also trigger symptoms in people with IBS, as sometimes these symptoms result from underlying food sensitivities.
- If dairy isn’t your thing, you can try one of the newer dairy-free probiotic juice drinks available that contain probiotics from both Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus genuses.
- If you’re interested in taking a supplement in pill form, choose a reputable product on the advice of your doctor or dietitian, preferably one that has been demonstrated to benefit people with your condition. For my patients with IBS, I often recommend an over-the-counter supplement called VSL #3 (it’s sold refrigerated, so you may need to ask for it at your local pharmacy), but I’d suggest you consult your healthcare provider for a recommendation that’s tailored to you. And while probiotic supplements are widely regarded as perfectly safe for most people, be sure to check in with them before starting on such a supplementation regimen just to make sure you have no underlying health issues for which probiotic supplements might be contraindicated.
Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN