ur bodies are home to trillions of beneficial bacteria that help with every aspect of our biological function. Our understanding of the complex interactions between our bodies and this microbiome is still developing, but one thing is clear: a healthy and diverse microbiome is vital to our good health. “We’ve only recently begun to recognize that our gut microbiome is an organ, no different from the heart or liver,” says Dr. Richard Fedorak, President of the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation (CDHF). “It plays an essential role in overall health.”

As research into the role of the microbiome progresses, along with the development of therapies to support or modify it, some of the most exciting findings have been in the area of digestive health. It is easy to overlook the importance of digestive health, but over 20 million Canadians suffer from digestive disorders every year, interfering with their family lives, their careers, and their general quality of life. For those who live with the most severe symptoms, as in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the effects can be extensive and devastating. That’s why it’s so encouraging that developments in probiotics are showing great promise in treating these conditions.

“We are embarking on a new and exciting journey to understand, and ultimately harness, the microbiome to influence and improve health"

Probiotics contain very specific strains of beneficial microbes that can alter the balance of the microbiome in our guts, replacing harmful bacteria and aiding in healthy digestion. “We are embarking on a new and exciting journey to understand, and ultimately harness, the microbiome to influence and improve health,” says Dr. Karen Madsen, Research Network Co-Chair for the CDHF’s OneBiota Human Gut Project and Professor of Medicine at the University of Alberta.

While research in this area is still young, early results have given good reason to be hopeful, particularly for those with IBS or IBD. “Probiotics are an opportunity for us to supplement the gut with good bacteria,” notes Dr. Fedorak. “Disorders of the lower intestine, such as IBS and IBD tend to be more positively impacted by probiotics than other areas of our digestive tract.”

Cultivating a healthy microbiome

One thing Canadians with these disorders must be aware of is not all probiotics are created equal. Some have far more empirical evidence supporting their claims than others, and the probiotic market is still largely unregulated. It is therefore vital that consumers have good information, and make use of the insights of their health care providers, before making any decision. “It is important to emphasize that choosing the right probiotic for your condition is imperative,” stresses Dr. Madsen. “Not all information you may find on the internet or in advertising is accurate. If you choose the right probiotic to manage IBS, it may help reduce abdominal discomfort, bloating, and flatulence.”

Thus, talking to your physician and pharmacist about what probiotic supplements might help you specifically is an important first step. If you do decide a probiotic could be the right treatment to help manage your digestive health, the good news is they are extremely accessible, usually available directly over the counter.