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GIFFORD-JONES: Friendly bacteria can help treat IBS


Napoleon Bonaparte once required a soldier for a dangerous mission. The story goes that he ordered several soldiers to face a firing squad. He then chose the one who showed no tendency to move his bowels.

Fear has a major effect on the large intestine. So, it and other factors are often responsible for what’s called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). But friendly gut bacteria (probiotics) play a role in easing terrifying and embarrassing occasions when nature calls, especially when there’s no bathroom in sight.

Probiotics are living organisms with numerous health benefits. What is not generally known is that the metabolic activities of gut bacteria actually resemble those of a human organ. That’s why some researchers refer to gut bacteria as “the forgotten organ.”

Patients with IBS complain of chronic abdominal pain, bloating, gas, stomach cramps, diarrhea, constipation with pebble-small stools. They often feel sick and depressed. It’s one of the most commonly diagnosed health problems. But more serious diseases such as ulcerative colitis with similar symptoms must always be ruled out before diagnosis by a doctor.

There’s no one factor that triggers IBS, and it can occur at any age. Food, stress, poor dietary habits and family history are all associated with this problem. Women are more likely to have IBS than men. And changes in bacteria play a key role.

As we get older, the body manufactures less lactase. This enzyme breaks down lactose, a carbohydrate present in milk products. This unabsorbed carbohydrate reaches the colon where bacteria ferments it and produces gas. So, cutting down on milk products can have an impact on abdominal discomfort.

The digestive tract can also have trouble absorbing other carbohydrates such as fructose. Patients with this problem should avoid soda and packaged goods, such as cookies. And many know that beans are notorious for producing large amounts of gas. One remedy, Beano, an enzyme supplement, decreases gas by breaking down poorly absorbed carbohydrates.

So how else can IBS be tamed? Improving one’s lifestyle is helpful. For instance, most North Americans do not eat enough fibre. It’s prudent to start the day with a high fibre cereal and fruit. This makes stools soft as toothpaste. But without sufficient fibre, stools become hard rocks, causing constipation, grunting, hemorrhoids and IBS. Another bad habit is putting off nature’s call for a more convenient time.

It’s also hard to estimate how many TV commercials have ruined normal bowels. Studies in mice show that when they’re given laxatives for four months, degeneration of intestinal nerves occurs.

Dr. Linda Lee, professor of gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins University, says that peppermint oil supplements are a good natural remedy to relax intestinal muscles. But she adds, mint candy, often offered after meals, does not work.

What about the use of friendly gut bacteria? It’s amazing that bacteria in the body outnumber other cells 10 to one. Most of these bacteria are present in the bowel, and luckily the majority are harmless.

So, it’s good news that the right gut bacteria (probiotics) are helpful to IBS and are linked to several other health benefits, including immune function, weight loss, improved digestion and even heathier skin. Gut bacteria also manufacture vitamin K and some B vitamins.

But not all bacteria in the intestines are friendly. Researchers believe that some gut bacteria are highly sensitive to diet and linked to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart and even Alzheimer’s disease. Most of these bacteria are in the large bowel.

Some IBS sufferers are helped by the use of yogurt, which contains organisms that ease symptoms of lactose intolerance, as yogurt contains bacteria that break down lactose.

When treating IBS with probiotics, experience shows that one type of bacteria does not fit all. Look for the heading, “gastroenterology”, on my website,, that lists a number of products that fight the symptoms of IBS.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones is a syndicated columnist whose medical column appears in The Guardian every Tuesday. Check out his website,, which provides easy access to past columns and medical tips. For comments, readers are invited to email him at He can also be found on

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