Irritable bowels are uncomfortable, inconvenient, frustrating and sometimes even embarrassing. Fortunately, new research suggests probiotics may be able to help.
The symptoms of irritable bowels can be unpredictable, which can make life complicated. Symptoms include bloating, gas, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and constipation. Some people experience constipation, while others experience only diarrhea; a few experience constipation alternating with diarrhea.
These symptoms originate in the large intestine, which is the last part of the gastrointestinal tract. The large intestine, also known as the colon, absorbs water and stores feces to eliminate later in a bowel movement. The underlying cause of these symptoms are not yet known, but researchers are trying to figure out what triggers bowel irritation. Lifestyle changes, stress management, medications and diet modification can help alleviate many GI upsets. Dietary changes usually include consuming more fiber and avoiding those foods that trigger symptoms. Unfortunately, identifying the offending foods is a bit of a hit-or-miss venture and systematically eliminating all food triggers can take years.
Doctors may also recommend over-the-counter and prescription drugs to treat an irritable bowel. These medications may include fiber supplements, anti-diarrheal medications, laxatives, drugs to calm bowel spasms or reduce fluid, antibiotics to kill off pathogenic bacterial overgrowth, pain medications and even anti-depressants. While these treatments may help alleviate some symptoms, they may cause unwanted side effects.
Fortunately, scientists are learning more about how the gut works in these cases. The newest research suggests that relieving problems in the large intestine may start with the tiny bacteria living there.
Tens of trillions of bacteria live in the digestive tract. These organisms, known collectively as the gut microbiota, affect human health. Some bacteria cause ill health and uncomfortable symptoms. Other bacteria, known as probiotics, confer health benefits to their host.
Probiotics aid in digestion, boost the immune system, and improve the absorption of nutrients from food. Robust colonies of probiotics can also crowd out populations of harmful bacteria, and create a physical barrier between the human body and the bad bacteria.
The bacteria living in the gut are alive; many factors can affect how colonies of bacteria thrive in the gut. Poor diet, stress, illness, and the use of antibiotics can kill off large numbers of beneficial bacteria. These alterations in gut bacteria can affect the symptoms of irritable bowels. Increasing the number and diversity of unhealthy bacteria can cause symptoms, for example, while boosting probiotic colonies can relieve symptoms.
Researchers in one study compared gut microbes of healthy people to those with irritable bowels that caused predominately diarrhea or alternating diarrhea/constipation. The scientists found that the participants with irritable bowels had less diverse gut bacteria compared with the healthy people.
The researchers found that the people with irritable bowels lacked the bacterial species responsible for maintaining the intestinal barrier that prevents harmful organisms from entering the body. This condition, often known as ‘leaky gut,’ gives the bad bacteria easier access to the body.
Probiotics can help alleviate symptoms of irritable bowels. In a 2017 study, researchers looked at data from five human clinical trials that studied the effects of probiotics on irritable bowels. They found that probiotics containing Bifidobacterium infantis calmed their symptoms without causing side effects. Probiotics can even help ease mood disturbances, according to another study, which is important because these unpleasant digestive symptoms can cause anxiety and depression.
Probiotic supplements should contain living bacteria for best results. Also, consumers with irritable bowels may benefit more from probiotic supplements that specifically contain Bifidobacteria. These probiotic supplements can help tame the uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing symptoms of a malfunctioning digestive system.