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  • Writer's pictureAlison Rosenstock

Is Yogurt Good for IBS? The research says maybe.

Is a cup of yogurt the answer to your IBS relief prayers?


If you’ve been struggling with IBS symptoms, you’re probably ready to try just about anything to feel better. Is yogurt good for IBS? In this blog post, I’ll explain what the research says so far. Short answer? Maybe. 

 

If you’re new here, welcome! I’m Alison, a Registered Dietitian and freelance writer who develops evidence-based resources in women’s health and GI nutrition.

 

When you read the #ibsawarenessmonth blog, you’ll learn what IBS is and the role diet plays in its management, how probiotics (like the ones in yogurt!) impact gastrointestinal (GI) and overall health, and what the research says about yogurt and its effects on IBS symptoms. You’ll also get access to the (free) IBS Nutrition Guide which will give you the tools to identify your specific food triggers.

 

Click here to check out the IBS Nutrition Guide.

 

Let’s start off by discussing what IBS is.


What is IBS?  

IBS stands for irritable bowel syndrome, which is defined by recurrent attacks, or flares, of abdominal pain and/or discomfort with bowel activity. It is a recurrent GI condition that affects between 9 and 23% of people across the world.


Many IBS patients report that consuming certain foods can make their GI symptoms, like gas, bloating, loose stools, or constipation, even worse. When your IBS is not well managed, it can cause physical and emotional distress and even limit your quality of life (and believe me, I know that you want to figure this out).

 

There is no cure for IBS, and it is still unknown what officially causes it. Even more complicated: IBS can be tricky to treat because each person with IBS is unique in their pattern of symptoms as well as the specific triggers that make symptoms worse, such as stress and/or diet.


So - what dietary changes might help your IBS? Let’s dive in. 


What is the best diet for IBS?

Many patients with IBS report that what they eat directly impacts their GI symptoms, for better or for worse. Ultimately, there is no one answer for all of us - the best diet varies for each person with IBS.


For many folks with IBS, a group of foods called the FODMAPs tend to put their digestive tract in a tailspin. FODMAPs are a special group of carbohydrates that may make your symptoms worse.

 

Instead of being digested and absorbed as your body intended, FODMAP compounds aren’t absorbed well in the GI tract. Instead, they might be digested, aka “fermented” by the gut bacteria. 


As the bacteria in your gut are chowing down on these carbohydrates, they’re also making hydrogen and methane gases. The gases are what make you feel uncomfortable and cause your belly to feel so painful - ouch!  


Common FODMAPs include fructose (found in fruits, veggies, and honey), lactose (found in milk and dairy products like yogurt), fructans (found in wheat, rye, and barley), and galactans (found in legumes like beans and lentils).

 

The most well-known diet for IBS is the FODMAP Diet, developed at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, which is designed to help patients determine their individual IBS food triggers. It is a diet that consists of 3 phases:

·    Low-FODMAP: For 2-6 weeks, you swap high-FODMAP foods for low-FODMAP food alternatives.

·    FODMAP Reintroduction: Over 8-12 weeks, you add back in one FODMAP-containing food at a time over 3 days; if the food does not cause GI distress you can increase the serving size.

·    FODMAP Personalization: You determine which high-FODMAP foods you can tolerate and which you should avoid.

 *Note: When following the FODMAP diet, make sure you are working with a healthcare professional you trust, such as a doctor or dietitian so that you reduce your risk of becoming deficient in important nutrients.


Foods that are low in FODMAPs include:

Fruits

Bananas

Blueberries

Grapefruit

Kiwi

Mandarins

Oranges

Passionfruit

Vegetables

Bok Choy

Carrots

Celery

Eggplant

Green Beans

Lettuce

Zucchini

Dairy

Brie and Camembert Cheese

Feta Cheese

Lactose-Free Milk

Grains

Gluten-free Breads and Cereals

Pasta made from Quinoa, Rice, or Corn

Sourdough Spelt Bread

Sweeteners

Golden Syrup

Maple Syrup

Rice Malt Syrup

Sucrose (Table Sugar)

Remember, every person with IBS is unique, and food triggers aren’t necessarily the same for each person. While one person may experience GI symptoms after eating a specific high FODMAP-food (like dairy or wheat), you may be able to consume it regularly without problems.


So where does yogurt fit into IBS dietary recommendations? Let’s explore.


Yogurt, Probiotics, and IBS

Yogurt is not typically included in the low-FODMAP diet because it contains lactose; however, it is also made up of probiotic bacteria species that ferment the lactose. Having that FODMAP already pre-digested makes a lot less work for the gut, which may mean fewer tummy troubles in IBS.


Probiotics is the medical term for what we think of as “good” bacteria. They are officially defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) as “live microorganisms that when consumed in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on their host”.


Many commercially available yogurts contain multiple probiotic strains and species, which are typically listed as “live and active cultures.” These include Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Streptococcus Thermophilus.


A rule of thumb when it comes to probiotics- the more strains, the better. Different strains have different effects on health, including protection against infections, boosting the immune system, and improving digestion.


It turns out that many people with IBS often don’t have enough probiotic bacteria in their GI tract, which can cause an imbalance that allows harmful bacteria to grow and cause health problems. Studies that looked at stool samples from IBS patients found that they had lower amounts of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species, and higher amounts of bacteria that cause infections when dominant, like Escherichia Coli (better known as E.Coli). Yikes!

 

While the effects of probiotics seem promising for GI conditions like IBS, there are a few important things to note when it comes to yogurt.


Not all yogurt is the same

Did you know that there is no standard definition of what “counts” as yogurt in terms of probiotics?


These snack cups can vary greatly in terms of how many - if any - live and active cultures there are per serving. 

 

To date, there isn’t an official list of standards to assure that yogurts and yogurt products have enough live and active species to provide health benefits. However, manufacturers can complete an independent verification process to receive an official live & active cultures (LAC) seal from the International Dairy Foods Association which can be viewed on their website here


This seal confirms that the yogurt or cultured dairy product contains at least 100 million cultures per gram of product at the time of manufacture, which is 10 times higher than the amount required by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

 

Something to keep in mind is that certain kinds of yogurt, such as full fat and/or flavored versions, can cause or worsen diarrhea in some people (remember those FODMAPs? Certain fruits in the yogurt might be more irritating to your digestive tract).


There have been research studies that have looked at yogurt products with specific probiotic concentrations. Let’s see what they have to say about yogurt’s role in reducing symptoms of IBS. 


What the research says- is yogurt good for IBS?

Research has shown that treatments like probiotics, which restore the balance of good gut bacteria, can help improve GI symptoms like those in IBS. However, the answer isn’t quite as straightforward when it comes to yogurt and IBS.


A study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology looked at adults with multiple types of IBS including diarrhea-dominant (IBS-D) and constipation-dominant IBS (IBS-C) who consumed a yogurt enhanced with Bifidobacterium lactis and acacia dietary fiber twice per day for 8 weeks. The IBS-C treatment group reported significant relief from GI symptoms like pain/discomfort and distention/bloating compared to the control group, while the IBS-D treatment group reported increased satisfaction with their bowel habits compared to the control group.


However, a study from the United Kingdom which investigated the effects of a probiotic dairy product twice per day for 12 weeks on IBS symptoms, found that both the treatment group and the control group reported improvements, including less bloating and flatulence and improved quality of life.


While a study found that Lactobacillus plantarum, a probiotic strain present in some yogurts, demonstrated improvements in IBS-specific symptoms like reduced pain and bloating after 4 weeks, the treatment was a capsule supplement rather than a food form like yogurt. 


My takeaway from the research so far? More large, long-term studies are needed to determine if probiotic-containing yogurt is effective at managing IBS symptoms. 


However, based on what we know and that yogurt has lots of important nutrients like protein and calcium, it may be worth experimenting with yogurt to see if you can tolerate it or even have fewer symptoms because of it. 


The Takeaway:  

Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic GI condition. Certain lifestyle triggers –  like diet and stress – can make symptoms worse. What we know from the research thus far is that the balance of healthy gut microorganisms is disturbed in conditions like IBS and that treatment with probiotic bacteria may help reduce your GI symptoms.

 

For some people, removing certain high FODMAP-containing foods from their diet helps improve and better manage their IBS. Though dairy yogurt is technically a high-FODMAP food, it may be more easily digested by some with IBS because its probiotic cultures ferment the lactose and help support the health of the gut.

 

Plain, low-fat yogurts may be the best choice as they are less likely to aggravate potential GI symptoms.

 

While there is much research to back up the health benefits of probiotics, there aren’t official standards for labeling yogurt as a probiotic. Yogurts that carry the LAC seal are most likely to have a large assortment of probiotic species and strains to provide the most health benefits.

 

At the end of the day, yogurt is only a good addition to an IBS-friendly diet if the individual’s body tolerates it well and it doesn’t trigger or worsen GI symptoms. Remember, every person with IBS is unique, so it is important to determine which foods are and are not a good fit for your specific situation.

 

When you download the free IBS Nutrition Guide, you’ll get a detailed list of high and low FODMAP foods AND a symptom food journal which will help you keep track of your IBS symptoms and determine your unique food triggers. You’ll feel empowered that you can take charge of your IBS symptoms by eating a balanced diet with foods that are right for you!


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