Microbial diversity is directly linked to quality of life for women with IBS - how to improve your gut

Good gut health is responsible for keeping so much of our bodies functioning properly. A healthy gut can strengthen our immune systems, improve mood and help with brain health - and that’s before you even get to the belly.

The gut is really instrumental in keeping things ticking along. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a lack of diverse gut bacteria in stool samples has been directly linked to agonising IBS symptoms.

Scientists at Texas Children’s Microbiome Centre have been looking at the relationship between gut bacteria, fecal consistency, pain, psychological distress and the overall quality of life of women with IBS.

76 women were asked to complete a 28-day diary in which they recorded gastrointestinal symptoms, stool consistency and psychological distress, as well as rating pain. They also completed an IBS-specific Quality of Life questionnaire.

The team then analysed the stool samples and split the women into four groups according to the results: IBS Constipation, IBS diarrhea, IBS mixed or IBS unsubtyped.

They found that those who had a lower microbial diversity tended to have worse extraintestinal pain, diarrhea and a worse quality of life. Increased lower extraintestinal pain was linked with an increase in specific bacteria, while previous research has shown that the guts of people living with IBS lack a healthy amount of bifidobacteria, or probiotics.

Probiotics normally live in your intestines and stomach and they help your body to digest food properly while warding off harmful bacteria.

A 2011 trial involving 122 people showed that B. bifidum may help lower symptoms of IBS after 62 people were given a placebo and 60 others a tablet containing B. bifidum every day. After four weeks, 47% of those on the probiotic reported significant improvement in their symptoms compared to just 11% of the placebo subjects.

How to improve your gut health

This particular kind of probiotic is found in large quantities in breast milk (which isn’t that surprising, given that babies need exposure to all kinds of bacteria).

But you can also get a gutful from the following:

  • Yoghurt with added cultures
  • Kefir (a fermented milk drink)
  • Fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and pickles
  • Sourdough bread

You can also buy probiotics in pill-form but always, you’re better off trying to get your nutrients in their natural form - as food. The body best benefits from having to breakdown food for vitamins and minerals, especially when those foods are rich in fibre.

There are plenty of other things you can do to improve your overall gut health too:

  • Reduce stress: If you’re living with IBS, the chances are that you’re having to deal with a lot of discomfort which then creates physical and mental stress. Stress can then make symptoms worse - creating a horrible cycle. Try to carve out time in your day in which you can do some mediation or go for a relaxing walk outside - anything to get out of that rut. Download an app like Headspace and see if it helps.
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise can be a great stress-reliever if you choose the right kind. Yoga, walking, jogging, dancing - all of these are guaranteed to increase your endorphins without adding too much physical stress to the body. We also know that exercise can lead to greater gut bacteria diversity. Working out in the fresh air exposes you to more bacteria, and many people who move more tend to eat slightly better - which can also have an impact. Try to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week.
  • Tone down the sweetness: It may be delicious but sugar and artificial sweeteners can have a devastating impact on our guts. Not only do they put us at risk of diabetes and heart disease if we eat too much of them, but research has found that sweetners can increase the number of bacterial strains linked to metabolic disease.
  • Sleep more: None of us gets enough sleep these days but it’s so important for so many different functions. Poor sleeping habits can destroy gut bacteria which then puts us at higher risk of inflammatory conditions.
  • Ditch the meat: Veggies and vegans enjoy a much more robust gut microbiome than omnivores, and that’s probably down to the amount of prebiotic fibre they consume. Try to give yourself at least two plant-based days a week.

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 13 February 2020
Next review: 13 February 2023