Probiotics are microorganisms found in food and supplements that can have great benefit to the digestive system. If you have IBS, you’ve likely been told to try a probiotic supplement to reduce gas, bloating or bowel changes like diarrhea and constipation.
Probiotics can help with IBS symptoms but there are a lot of misconceptions about them and it can be difficult to choose one on your own. To save you time and money on potentially buying one that won’t work or isn’t necessary, I’m sharing what you need to know about probiotics and my favourite brands that I recommend to my IBS clients.
Probiotics Don’t Grow a Healthy Microbiome, Prebiotics do
The biggest misconception about probiotics is that if you take them you can ‘regrow’ your good gut bacteria. This is incorrect. It’s been proven that probiotics are transient; meaning they pass through the GI tract, temporarily shifting it for the better, and are eliminated in your stool. They do not colonize so once you stop taking your probiotic supplement, you will no longer have that particular good bacteria in your gut (unless you had it before taking the probiotic).
The only way to colonize good bacteria is by feeding them specific types of fibres called Prebiotics. Prebiotics are found in supplement form such as partially hydrolyzed guar gum (“PHGG”) , lactulose, fructooligosaccharides (“FOS”) and inulin. Prebiotics are found in plant foods such as beans, legumes, fruits, whole grains and vegetables.
Prebiotics and IBS are tricky as they can also cause more gas and bloating. It’s best to work with a knowledgeable health practitioner to find prebiotic sources that your gut will tolerate.
A Probiotic Supplement Can’t Replicate The Exact Microbes Found in a Healthy Gut
There are 8 key species of good bacteria found in a healthy gut yet only two of them are found in probiotic supplements.
With probiotic supplements, we only have the technology to replicate Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains of bacteria. That doesn’t mean a probiotic supplement is useless but they aren’t a replacement for what truly cultivates a healthy microbiome: your diet.
More Strains Doesn’t Make it a Better Product
Under the umbrella of the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families, there are 80 different strains of bifidobacterium and 170 different strains of lactobacillus. You would think you want to take them all, right? Not quite.
The goal of using a probiotic supplement isn’t to replicate a healthy gut microbiome but to use a specific strain that corresponds with the benefit you are looking for. Throwing a whole bunch of different strains in your gut isn’t likely to give you the benefit you are looking for. Also know that the more strains a probiotic has, the more expensive it is.
You Don’t Always Need the Highest CFU Count
CFU stands for colony-forming unit and is the measuring unit for the number of live and active microorganisms that can be found in each serving of the probiotic you are taking. You will find probiotics ranging from 100 million CFUs, which is the lower end, to 500 billion CFUs, which is on the higher end. The cost of a probiotic will increase with the CFU count.
You don’t need the highest CFU count in order for a probiotic to be effective. In fact, starting with a high CFU count of 50 billion or more if you have never taken a probiotic can cause more gas and bloating. 5 to 10 billion CFUs is a good place to start, keeping in mind that some very effective probiotics, like BioGaia, naturally have a lower CFU count.
Watch Out for Allergens & Additives
If you have food allergies, know that some probiotics are cultured in a base of dairy or soy. Look for ‘dairy-free’ or ‘soy-free’ labels, as needed.
There are some additives that can be problematic for those with IBS including FOS, inulin, sucrose and milk powder. Maltodextrin does not usually pose a problem for people with IBS.
The Top Three Probiotics I Use With My IBS Clients
Good for: constipation, leaky gut, abdominal pain
Good for: diarrhea, leaky gut
Good for: constipation, reflux, abdominal pain, available in drops for babies
A probiotic supplement can be helpful in reducing IBS symptoms but is not able to cultivate a healthy gut microbiome, on its own. If nourishing a healthy gut microbiome is your health goal, dietary strategies should be used in conjunction with a probiotic supplement. If you do try a probiotic, you don’t need to buy an expensive product or one that you can only order online. Drug store brands like Culturelle, Florastor and BioGaia are proven to be effective in reducing gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation but without a high price tag.