Underlying pathophysiological mechanisms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a common disorder characterized by abdominal pain associated to a change in stool consistency or frequency, include low-grade inflammation and intestinal microbiota changes. Few and disappointing data are available for prebiotics. A few controlled trials (RCTs) of probiotics are instead available with favourable effects, although most are limited by suboptimal design and small sample size. A recent report from the Rome foundation group included 32 RCTs of probiotics, most of which showed an overall modest improvement in symptoms, with the patients most benefitting from probiotics being those with predominant diarrhoea and those having a post-infectious IBS. A review focusing only on children with functional gastrointestinal disorders concluded that probiotics are more effective than placebo in the treatment of patients with abdominal pain-related functional gastrointestinal disorders, although no effect on constipation was evident. The role for probiotics in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) appears logical: the endogenous intestinal microbiota plays a central role in their development, and various probiotics have been found effective in animal models of IBD. However, research in humans has been overall quite limited, and it would seem that after a phase of intense research in the first decade of this century, the pace has slowed down, with fewer clinical trials been published in the past 2-3 years. To summarize current evidence: no probiotic has proven successful in Crohn's disease. In ulcerative colitis, on the other hand, data are more promising, and a very recent meta-analysis, that included 23 randomized controlled trials, concluded that there is evidence of efficacy for the probiotic mixture VSL#3 in helping inducing and maintaining remission, as well as in maintaining remission in patients with pouchitis. It is fair to state that for both IBD and IBS, more well-designed, rigorous, randomized clinical trials must be performed.
Keywords: Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis; functional gastrointestinal disorders; inflammatory bowel disease; irritable bowel syndrome.