A man places his hands over his stomach. His hands are shaped into a heart.
In addition to probiotics and medications, Dr. Thomas Rupp suggests patients with inflammatory bowel disease try these lifestyle and diet changes. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

If it was up to gastroenterologist Thomas Rupp, MD, everyone would have a healthy dose of probiotics in their diet.

But it’s especially important for the 1.5 million Americans with inflammatory bowel disease, the most common forms of which are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

While there’s no cure for IBD, Dr. Rupp said probiotics, other diet changes and medications are among the tools he has to help patients control symptoms, feel better and lead a normal life.

“Probiotics are important because they help break down bacteria and promote healthy intestinal flora,” Dr. Rupp said. “You want a balance between the good and bad microbes that normally live in your gut.”

Finding probiotics is as easy as heading to your local grocery store. They’re in yogurt, kefir (similar to liquid yogurt) and fermented foods like sauerkraut. You can also find probiotic supplements in the grocery store or health food store.

Dr. Rupp said probiotics are just one part of a comprehensive treatment plan for people with IBD.

“IBD is something that patients really can’t manage on their own,” he said. “They need the help of a physician, starting with an accurate diagnosis.”

That’s because IBD is often confused with irritable bowel syndrome. Here’s the difference:

  • IBD represents chronic diseases, like Crohn’s and colitis, that may recur periodically over a lifetime and cause inflammation, ulcers and other damage to the bowel.
  • IBS represents functional disorders, meaning the digestive system looks normal, but doesn’t work like it should. Most people with IBS will never develop IBD, but a person who has been diagnosed with IBD may display IBS-like symptoms.

Because IBS symptoms are nonspecific and are also seen in IBD and celiac disease, among others, patients often undergo a long diagnostic odyssey to establish a diagnosis, typically involving repeated colonoscopies.

For patients with diarrhea-predominant irritable bowel syndrome, however, a blood test can quickly rule out IBD and save cost, inconvenience and a lot of discomfort.

For people with confirmed IBD, the goal of treatment is to reduce inflammation in their intestines.

This typically requires medical intervention, which might include using anti-inflammatory medications, steroids, antibiotics or immune system suppressors called biologics.

Dr. Rupp explained that patients with IBD typically have a very strong immune system–so strong that it attacks the lining of the colon or the small intestine, which leads to diarrhea and pain. Biologics help by suppressing the immune system and stopping the body’s inflammatory response.

“Biologics have actually been around for 15 years, but there are newer ones coming out,” he said. “That means even more options for patients who have not yet found relief with other therapies.”

In addition to probiotics and medications, Dr. Rupp suggests patients with IBD try these lifestyle and diet changes:

  • Start with a low-fiber or liquid diet.
  • Keep a food diary to identify triggers and manage flare-ups.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals.
  • Enjoy food in a relaxed atmosphere.
  • Limit seeds, nuts, beans, fruit and bran.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Stay away from caffeine and energy drinks.

“My goal is for patients to live a life that is free from pain and to go on and not worry about it,” Dr. Rupp said.

Hear more about IBD and probiotics from Dr. Rupp: