The Scoop on Poop: Good Bacteria (Probiotics) for IBS and GI symptoms

probiotics-for-ibs-GI-symptoms

Who would have thought? Our poop on any given day is full of bacteria. Millions, if not triillions of various bacteria (over 400 varieties) hang out in our GI tracts. It turns out that not all bacteria are bad– in fact, in this location most of these guys are good. As science advances we have learned more and more about how gut bacteria or the fancy science name “GI flora” has a lot to do with how we feel.

So how can we use this knowledge to help us feel better from our IBS symptoms?

Many people suffer from IBS, a condition which can cause constipation, diarrhea or both, along with abdominal discomfort, gas and bloating? Sounds awful. And it can be. However it turns out that many people’s symptoms improve with the addition of a Probiotic. These are pills or tablets that contain high concentrations of specific colonies of bacteria (such as Lactobacillus or Acidophilus) that are felt to be restorative to the GI tract.

Can I get these bacteria a more “natural way”?

Some people suggest eating yogurt since it contains bacteria. However, most yogurts, even those as touted for having probiotics in them, do not contain as significant amounts as those found in pill or capsule formulations. Additionally, some feel the acidity of the yogurt denatures the bacteria so they are not active. The same hold true for buttermilk and Kombucha.

Should one take probiotics for IBS?

Some people who suffer from IBS or chronic constipation or diarrhea find taking probiotics all the time helps them. There are other specific situations where taking probiotics for a short period of time can be helpful.

For example, after a “stomach flu” or GI virus where one has been hit with nausea and/or vomiting and diarrhea, the gut can be somewhat cleaned out of the good bacteria. In fact the lining of the GI tract can also be depleted of other cells like the ones that help you process lactose (thus you can become temporarily lactose intolerant). So one, thing to aid in recovering from this type of illness is to avoid dairy products for a few days. Additionally, this is a great time to try a probiotic to help replenish any good bacteria you may have lost during the illness.

Another time probiotics can be useful is when taking antibiotics. Antibiotics are medicines used to treat certain types of bacterial infections (for example, sinus infections, urinary tract infections, pneumonia). While necessary at times to treat illness, antibiotics carry their own potential risks and side effects. Many can cause diarrhea or other GI side effects. This may in part be because in their role of killing bacteria, they may be eliminating some of the good bacteria from your colon, that usually maintains balance. For this reason, taking probiotics while taking an antibiotic can be a good idea. Probiotics will not interfere with the good work of the antibiotic. There is some evidence to suggest that probiotics will reduce infections with a nasty GI bacteria called “CDiff” (Claustrium Difficile is a normal inhabitant of our GI tract that grows uncontrolled once other good bacteria get killed off by antibiotics). Probiotics may help prevent this. However, this is an illness that also is usually best treated by your physician with appropriate prescription medication as well.

Many people who suffer from chronic GI illness such as Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis also find probiotics can help with their symptoms and are a useful adjunct to other prescribed treatments.

Which probiotic should I take?

Unfortunately the jury is still very much out on this one. There are hundreds or thousands of different products out there, many of which are composed of different strains of bacteria. Research has been inconsistent on whether or not a specific strain is better for one condition over another. Many studies use different strains of Lactobacillus and these are the most typically used products. We believe that more research will be done in the near future that will clarify if different types of probiotics will be useful for specific issues. For the time being we recommend a reputable product (such as Align®, Florastor® or VSL#3®). It may take some trial and error to find the right probiotic to meet your needs, since clearly there is a very individual component to this.

Are there side effects from probiotics?

In our experience and according to most data these are safe to take. Very few people experience side effects. That being said, everyone is different and you feel that something you are taking is not agreeing with you, by all means stop. There is a theoretical risk of these live bacteria causing infections in those who are truly immuncompromised (have had an organ transplant, undergoing chemotherapy, etc) so best to confer with your doctor if you fall into one of these catagories.

Are probiotics useful for more than GI symptoms?

Surprisingly they may be! It turns out these bacteria in our intestines may play a role in many many other aspects of our health. Recent research has found that obese people tend to have different types of bacteria in their guts than non obese people. This is sort of a chicken/egg situation where we don’t know if the bacteria cause the obesity or vice verse. Nonetheless, it’s a great discovery that will likely lead to some new treatments for obesity, involving changing up your gut bacteria.

And wait, it get’s even better. These critters in your gut may even play a role in mental health and mood. Several studies have shown that adding probiotics have improved conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety and depression!

So, while these gut bacteria may not be the sexiest topic, they clearly are important to good GI health and other aspects of our well being. You will likely be hearing more and more about them as new research comes out. Also find out what other vitamins are just right for you, by taking our vitamin quiz about your diet, lifestyle and health history in order to get your personalized all in one vitamin and Find Your Vous!


Romy Block specializes in Endocrinology and Metabolism and is mother to three active adolescent boys. Arielle Levitan is a Doctor of Internal Medicine with a special interest in Preventive Medicine and Women’s Health.  She is a mother of three teen agers. As professional women with active family lives, they recognize that people often neglect their own health needs and are uncertain about what vitamins to take. Each person is different in her diet, exercise and health history, and will benefit from different nutrients.  After years of advising their patients about the proper vitamins to take,  Drs. Block and Levitan created Vous Vitamin® to provide people everywhere with quality vitamins that are suited to their individual needs. They are authors of the award winning The Vitamin Solution: Two Doctors Clear Confusion About Vitamins and Your Health (She Writes Press, 2015). Take your vitamin survey now to get exactly the right vitamins for your needs.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Nothing contained herein is intended to be a diagnosis or constitute medical advice. The symptoms described in this Blog may be a result of a serious medical condition which requires medical treatment. You should consult with your doctor if you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this Blog and before beginning any vitamin or supplement regimen.

photocredit: NIAID

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