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Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) Health Center

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Supplements for IBS: What Works?

Do fiber, probiotics, prebiotics, and other products ease irritable bowel syndrome?
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is among the most common intestinal maladies and one of the most difficult to treat. No single remedy works for everybody, and there are few drugs created exclusively for IBS symptoms, which include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and/or constipation.

"I look at it this way: I don't have a lot of great things in conventional medicine to offer, so what I do have is in the realm of natural therapy," says Tieraona Low Dog, MD, a clinician and professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

Recommended Related to Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Living with IBS: One Young Woman's Story

I've had the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome -- a gastrointestinal disorder -- for my whole life, but when I was younger, I didn't realize anything was wrong. My parents thought my cramps, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea were normal because they had similar symptoms. So I thought it was normal, too. As I grew up, I pretty much just coped with it. It was inconvenient, but I did my best. But three years ago, when I was 27, after having some minor surgery done, I had the worst symptoms ever...

Read the Living with IBS: One Young Woman's Story article > >

But that doesn't mean that all natural remedies touted as IBS fixes work, and in some cases, research results have been mixed. What really works? Here's what experts say.

Probiotics for IBS

Probiotics are microorganisms that supplement the gut's natural bacteria, helping to "balance" intestinal flora.

Why probiotics seem to work is still something of a mystery, but some studies suggest that probiotic supplements, especially those with a predominance of Bifidobacterium infantis, alleviate IBS symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, and bowel movement irregularity.

Lawrence Schiller, MD, a gastroenterologist in Dallas, says he's comfortable recommending probiotic supplements to patients because probiotics don't do any harm and seem to help some of them.

But Schiller is skeptical of the products on the market; he says most studies of probiotics and IBS don't differentiate between bacterial strains and doses, a conundrum for the consumer who is faced with shelves full of probiotic-laced yogurts and milk in the market.

"The chances of going to the store and finding something viable and effective is very much a long shot," he says. "The best evidence for probiotics is with some of the combination products and some that contain bifida bacteria, not acidophilus or lactobilli."

Prebiotics for IBS

Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that stimulate growth and activity of microorganisms in the gut.

Prebiotics are naturally found in many foods, such as oatmeal and other whole grains, and many fruits and vegetables, including artichokes, asparagus, onions, and bananas.

Clinical studies have been small and few, and the results are mixed. One study showed that IBS patients given a combination of probiotics and prebiotics experienced a significant improvement in abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation; another study showed prebiotics had no effect.

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