Probiotics may be the single best supplement for reducing IBS symptoms. The reason why might surprise you.
It’s not the commonsense view. According to this view, when your gut microbiome gets obliterated by antibiotics or a virus — you simply fill it up again with good bacteria.
Like filling up a gas tank.
But the human ecosystem doesn’t work that way. You can’t simply reload your bacterial reservoir by swallowing probiotics.
You poop them out. They don’t stick.
No matter, because along the way, these transient voyagers can do lots of good.
How Probiotics Work
Probiotics are microorganisms with beneficial effects on human health. These microorganisms exist on your gut, skin, lungs, hair… pretty much everywhere.
Microbes outnumber human cells. Not 10 to 1, as is commonly quoted. Probably more like 1.3 to 1[*].
People usually take probiotic supplements for gut health. Probiotics have also been shown to help with immunity, skin health, mood — the list is long[*][*]. These effects are likely mediated through the gut.
Here’s a weird finding. Even dead probiotics have been shown to reduce GI symptoms[*].
Probiotics don’t stick in your gut. (Remember?). They do, however, interact with other microorganisms — and your immune system — as they journey through your body.
On their fantastic voyage through your gut, probiotics:
- Generate antimicrobial compounds that destroy pathogens[*]
- Increase microbial diversity (generally considered a good thing)
- Bolster the immune system
- Strengthen the mucous layer protecting the gut
- Reduce gut inflammation[*]
Because of this, probiotics have proven effective for treating a variety of gut ailments — including IBS.
Probiotics for IBS
IBS is not a syndrome. It’s a catch-all term for a spectrum of symptoms.
I won’t get on my “reject your IBS diagnosis” soapbox right now. (See this article for that). Just understand: IBS symptoms can be ended. And probiotics can help.
How? For one, probiotics secrete antimicrobial chemicals. This is likely why probiotics are effective for treating small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO, by the way, is present in many (if not most) cases of IBS[*].
Probiotics also have potent anti-inflammatory effects on the gut. And guess what? Inflammation almost always accompanies IBS.
“A high proportion of IBS patients show low-grade inflammation, which is a multifactorial process, in the intestinal mucosa,” write the authors of a 2016 study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology[*].
Tying it all together, a 2015 meta analysis — an analysis of multiple studies looking at 1793 IBS patients — showed that probiotics significantly reduced IBS symptoms over placebo[*].
What Probiotic Should You Take for IBS?
Probiotics aren’t regulated by the FDA. Which means you’ll need to hack through some serious marketing to get to the truth.
But you don’t have time to play detective. You just want a probiotic that works.
Perhaps I can help. I’ve done the research, tried dozens of brands, and — most importantly — have no skin in the game. No financial bias.
My first thought? Most probiotic supplements — even dead ones — likely have some effect. Though I’d prefer them to be live.
So if you’re on a tight budget, a cheap probiotic with lactobacillus and bifidobacterium strains is probably better than nothing.
On the opposite end of the budgetary spectrum is VSL #3 — a high CFU (colony forming units) blend of several probiotic strains that costs about $100 a month. There’s clinical research supporting VSL #3 — and I tried it — but for me, it didn’t do much.
So I saved some money and went back to my cheap Amazon probiotic.
Recently I started a new probiotic. SEED.
I heard about SEED on Chris Kresser’s podcast. When that man talks about gut health, I listen.
His guest was equally impressive. His name was Raja Dhir, gut microbiome expert and co-founder of SEED.
“We’re a life sciences company,” explained Dhir on the podcast. “Our entire approach to formulation, product development, discovery, validation of organisms is examining everything [..] showing that the effect is present in a human population ideally and mostly in double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trials.”
So SEED has science behind it. A non-negotiable.
But for me, the real selling point was the delivery system. Most probiotics — VSL #3 included — aren’t designed to survive stomach acid. They get killed en route to your intestines.
But SEED survives stomach acid. It survives because — among other mechanisms — it’s encapsulated in alginate that forms a protective gel around the bacteria.
In other words, the probiotics are delivered to the large bowel. Which is where they belong.
For what it’s worth, my personal experience with SEED has been positive. I ended my IBS symptoms years ago, but the last stage of my digestive system still wasn’t perfect.
Now it’s closer to perfect. I’ll leave it at that.
SEED isn’t exactly a bargain probiotic, but it’s $25 / month if you opt for bi monthly delivery. Worth the money, I think. (No affiliation, by the way).
The Future of Probiotics
One day the FDA will start regulating probiotic supplements. There’s money to be made.
Until then, we must rely on the integrity of companies, published science, and — most importantly — personal experience.
The truth is, every gut is different. IBS or no IBS. Choosing your best probiotic may take some trial and error. But the rewards are worth it.