IBS and the gut flora - what role do gut bacteria play?

The number of cases of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) have risen sharply in recent years. Today, almost one in 10 Singaporeans suffers from IBS, or a sensitive gut as it’s also known. The causes of IBS are still unknown, but research indicates that the gut flora may play a part.

IBS and the gut flora - what role do intestinal bacteria play

What is IBS?

IBS stands for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This means that the normal gut function is out of balance, often with increased sensitivity in the entire gastrointestinal tract. IBS has long been regarded as hard to diagnose, since it cannot be diagnosed via tests or examinations. The diagnosis is based on the identification of symptoms and the exclusion of other diseases.

Some examples of IBS symptoms are:

  • Gas, flatulence, and a rumbling stomach
  • Stomach pain – often worst after meals, but subsides after a bowel movement
  • Irregular bowel movement
  • Changing consistency of stool
  • Symptoms continue for at least 2-3 months

Who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

The reason why people suffer from IBS is still uncertain, but it’s believed to be a combination of several interactive factors – both physiological and psychological. There are also researchers who believe that part of the explanation is faulty interaction between the gut and brain.

Another factor that’s often mentioned in discussions about IBS is stress, but it’s unclear whether it’s the symptoms that cause stress, the stress that causes the symptoms, or both. What we do know, however, is that the gut and the brain are in constant communication with each other via the vagus nerve, among other things, and that the communication goes in both directions. This connection between the gut and the brain is also known as the gut-brain axis.

The gut flora and IBS

The gut flora consists of millions of bacteria that live in our gut and, among other things, contribute to digestion, nutrient intake, and the immune system. The gut also contains hundreds of millions of nerve fibres which control how the gut works, along with the gut bacteria and signals sent from the brain. However, it’s been shown that the nerves in the gut show increased sensitivity in people with IBS, which negatively affects gut function, making it more easily irritated.


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How to treat IBS

1. Gut flora can be the key to future treatments

At present, there is no medicine for the treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but the symptoms can be relieved with medication. Animal studies have also shown that by changing the composition of the gut flora, you can affect the animals’ stress levels. This has not been proven with people suffering from IBS so far, but an ongoing study at the University Hospital in Örebro is currently investigating the effects of transplanting healthy intestinal flora into IBS patients.

2. An anti-inflammatory diet can help

A lot of people with IBS also find adjusting their diet to be helpful. Sometimes IBS symptoms can be a sign of a gluten or lactose sensitivity, for example. A lot of people have stated that their symptoms have been reduced when they’ve adopted an anti-inflammatory diet which excludes gluten and dairy products, as well as sugar and unnecessary additives.

3. Fibres – important for the intestinal flora

Fibre is another popular topic of discussions when it comes to the right diet for IBS patients. Fibre, which is mainly found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and other plant foods is very important for our health because it’s food for the good intestinal bacteria. It also encourages normal gut function. If you have difficulty digesting fibre, it may be because you’re lacking the good bacterial strains that can digest that particular fibre. Instead of eliminating the fibre altogether, it’s better to start with a lower intake of this fibre and then increase the amount gradually. You can also fill up on both good bacteria and fibre with a synbiotic supplement, for example.

4. Manage stress

If you suffer from IBS, it could be a good idea to try to reduce your stress levels, above all in connection with meals. You can find more info on stress and gut flora here.

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