Do ‘healthy’ bacteria have a role in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)?

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Last week I focused on how reactions to specific foods can precipitate the undesirable gut feelings collectively known as ‘irritable bowel syndrome’ (IBS). While IBS is commonly triggered by food sensitivity, this condition can also be related to other internal issues. One other frequent underlying factor in IBS concerns the microbes that reside within the gut. In health, the gastrointestinal tract is home to a variety of bugs that play an integral part in maintaining the good and proper workings of this organ. Should the balance of these gastrointestinal organisms go awry, however, digestive function can go belly up.

The internal ecosystem is chiefly made up of several pounds’ worth of bacteria – a word that most of us associate with ill health and disease. However, the bacteria that reside within the gut, including strains of what are known as the acidophilus and bifidus species, are broadly beneficial: amongst other things, they promote health in the lining of the digestive tract and help protect the gut against disease-causing organisms including parasites and viruses. Some depletion of the gut’s stocks of beneficial bacteria generally comes with age. However, the demise of these microbes can be greatly enhanced by a variety of factors, including the taking of antibiotics. In time, the erosion of beneficial bacteria in the body can compromise the gut’s healthy functioning, and may also lead to the emergence of potentially problematic organisms.

One type of organism that can assume an unhealthy degree of dominance in the gut, particularly as a consequence of antibiotic therapy, is yeast. Yeast is a fermenting organism, and the gas it gives off can give rise to symptoms common in IBS such as bloating and/or wind (often foul-smelling). A glut of yeast in the gut can also be associated with fungal infections elsewhere in the body such as vaginal thrush and athlete’s foot.

One key to getting better balance in the gut ecosystem is to avoid foods that encourage the growth of yeast and other unwanted organisms that may be lurking in the gut. The fundamentals of such as diet involve de-emphasising refined sugar, refined carbohydrates (such as pasta and white rice), and foods that are yeasty, mouldy or fermented such as wine, beer, mushrooms, Marmite, cheese and dried fruit in the diet. Ideally, the bulk of food intake should come from meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds.

The regular eating of ‘live’ natural yoghurt (which contains generally beneficial bacteria) may also help re-establish balance in the gut. Certain food components feed healthy bacteria, and may encourage growth in these important organisms. One such substance is a plant carbohydrate called inulin, a good concentration of which can be found in chicory. In addition to these dietary changes, I recommend the taking of one of the healthy gut bacterial supplements (known as probiotics) that can be found in good health food stores. Several studies have found that probiotic supplementation can bring significant relief in IBS symptoms within two or three months. Experience shows that for those who suffer from excessive fermentation in the gut, natural germ warfare can bring a breath of fresh air.

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