I have spent a lot of time talking with physicians, pharmacists, and patients about the benefits of probiotics. The one topic that comes up most frequently is how probiotics can aid individuals who suffer with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

IBS affects up to one in five Americans. Second only to the common cold as a leading cause of workplace absenteeism in the U.S., IBS costs the U.S. healthcare system up to an estimated $30 billion annually in direct and indirect costs.

Medical Presciptions for IBS

When I first went into gastroenterology, the understanding of IBS was very limited. It was generally thought that the symptoms of bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation were most likely related to stress. If the intestinal symptoms were manifestation of the stress, then controlling the stress would alleviate the problem. Commonly prescribed therapies included tranquilizers like Librium and phenobarbitol, and antidepressants like Elavil and Aventyl, which were then combined with other drugs – antispasmotics – that affected the nerves that go to the GI tract.  The typical drug armament included such medications as Librax, Bentyl, Levsin and Donnatal. They were relatively safe, but did have side effects of dry mouth and sedation.

Other longtime therapies have included fiber type products that increase stool bulk, like Metamucil and Fibercon.

More recently, drugs that interact with serotonin receptors in the GI tract have been developed. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is primarily found in the gastrointestinal tract and in the brain. Serotonin increases intestinal motility, probably by stimulation of 5-HT4 and 5-HT3 receptors. Two prescription medications that interact with the serotonin receptors were developed and approved by the FDA.

Zelnorm, approved by the FDA in 2002, eases constipation by stimulating the 5HT4 serotonin receptor.  It was withdrawn from the market in 2007 due to serious adverse effects on the blood supply to the intestines.

Lotronex was approved by the FDA in 2000 for women with severe diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome. Lotronex blocks the 5HT3 serotonin receptor. It is called a 5HT3 antagonist. Clinical studies showed only a 15-20% improvement in diarrhea symptoms in patients taking Lotronex versus placebo.  There have been serious adverse effects associated with this medication. Overall, Lotronex has very limited use in treating IBS patients.

A major concern with prescribing prescription medications is adverse drug interactions. Most medications are metabolized and eliminated by the liver. In the liver there are enzymes that can modify and eliminate drugs. The blood level of a specific medication can be increased or decreased by a second drug’s effect on the liver enzymes. The second medication can induce or inhibit the enzyme system resulting in elevated or reduced blood levels of the first drug. Changing the blood level of a medication can cause significant adverse drug reactions.

What About Probiotics for IBS Sufferers?

Here is the good news with regard to probiotics:

  1. Probiotics are safe and not associated with any severe adverse effects in healthy individuals.
  2. There are no drug interactions with other medications.
  3. Studies have shown that probiotics can alleviate symptoms of IBS.

Two recent reports(1, 2) reviewed the available studies using probiotics to treat symptoms of IBS. Both reports concluded that probiotics appear to be efficacious in IBS but the magnitude of the benefit and the most effective species and strains are uncertain. This means that probiotics show statistical significance in reducing IBS symptoms compared to patients taking a placebo. The problem is determining what types of probiotic bacteria and what dosage of probiotics work best.

There are a number of studies that indicate that the dosage of a multispecies/strain probiotic should be at least 5-10 billon organisms per day.

The mechanisms by which probiotics lessen IBS symptoms are being actively investigated(3).  For example, studies have shown that the bacterial flora in patients with IBS is different than in individuals without IBS symptoms. The bacteria in IBS patients can produce increased gases like methane which causes constipation and bloating(4). By altering the bacteria population with probiotics, it is possible to lessen methane production and ease symptoms of constipation.

I can go on about how probiotics improve intestinal function, but I am afraid I will start to bore you.

The point I am trying to make is that probiotics can help people with IBS symptoms, and they are very safe. If you have symptoms, then consider a trial of a probiotic. Obviously, if you have new onset symptoms, it is best to consult your physician first.

The problem is trying to choose the right probiotic product. It’s important to consider:

  1. Dosage per serving size – how many billon organisms/serving?
  2. Number and type of different probiotic bacteria – how many Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria strains in each serving?
  3. What is the shelf life at room temperature?
  4. Does the product also contain fructooligosaccharides (FOS) – prebiotics*?
  5. Is the packaging in dark, glass bottles, helping to lessen exposure to oxygen and sun light?

Take Home Message

If you have symptoms of IBS, consider taking an excellent probiotic like EndoMune Advanced. Each capsule contains 10 different bacteria strains.  A serving size of two capsules contains 16 billon organisms and 50mg of FOS.

For children, consider EndoMune Junior. Each serving size of ¼ Tsp contains four bacterial strains, a total of 10 billon organisms, and 50mg of FOS.

Eat healthy and live well!
Lawrence J Hoberman MD

*FOS are prebiotics. Prebiotics are starches in foods like those found in the fiber of fruits, beans and the bran in whole grain breads and cereals. They are called resistant starches because our intestines can’t break them down. These starches enter the colon and are used as nourishment by the good bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. These bacteria ferment these starches and produce short chain fatty acids that nourish the colon cells and enhance its healthy function.

(1) The efficacy of probiotics in the therapy of irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review.Moayyedi P, Ford AC, Talley NJ, Cremonini F, Foxx-Orenstein A, Brandt L, Quigley E.Gut. 2008 Dec 17.

(2) Meta-analysis of probiotics for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. McFarland LV, Dublin S.World J Gastroenterol. 2008 May 7;14(17):2650-61.

(3) The role of probiotics in management of irritable bowel syndrome. Borowiec AM, Fedorak RN.Curr Gastroenterol Rep. 2007 Oct;9(5):393-400.

(4) Methane and the Gastrointestinal Tract.Sahakian AB, Jee SR, Pimentel M. Dig Dis Sci. 2009 Oct 15.