Modulation of the gut microbiota: a focus on treatments for irritable bowel syndrome

Postgrad Med. 2017 Nov;129(8):872-888. doi: 10.1080/00325481.2017.1383819. Epub 2017 Oct 13.


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which is characterized by recurrent abdominal pain and disordered bowel habits, is one of the most common functional bowel disorders. IBS is a substantial burden on both patient health-related quality of life and healthcare costs. Several pathophysiologic mechanisms have been postulated for the occurrence of IBS, including altered gastrointestinal motility, visceral hypersensitivity, changes in gut permeability, immune activation, gut-brain dysregulation, central nervous system dysfunction, and changes in the gut microbiota. Of note, both qualitative and quantitative differences have been observed in the gut microbiota of a population with IBS versus a healthy population. Because of the substantial interest in the gut microbiota and its role as a therapeutic target in IBS, this article provides an overview of specific interventions with the potential to modulate the gut microbiota in IBS, including elimination diets, prebiotics, probiotics, synbiotics, and nonsystemic antibiotics. Although probiotics and synbiotics are generally well tolerated, differences in the composition and concentration of different bacterial species and inclusion or exclusion of prebiotic components varies widely across studies and has prevented strong recommendations on their use in IBS. For nonsystemic antibiotics, rifaximin is indicated in the United States for the treatment of IBS with diarrhea in adults and has been shown to be efficacious and well tolerated in well-designed clinical trials. Overall, more consistent evidence is needed regarding the efficacy and safety of elimination diets, prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics for the treatment of patients with IBS. Furthermore, additional well-designed studies are needed that examine alterations in the gut microbiota that occur with these interventions and their potential associations with clinical symptoms of IBS.

Keywords: Antibiotic; constipation; diarrhea; diet; irritable bowel syndrome; microbiota; prebiotic; probiotic; rifaximin.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / therapeutic use
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Diet / methods
  • Dietary Supplements*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / drug effects*
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / physiopathology*
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / therapy*
  • Prebiotics / administration & dosage
  • Probiotics / pharmacology
  • Probiotics / therapeutic use
  • Rifamycins / pharmacology
  • Rifamycins / therapeutic use
  • Rifaximin
  • Synbiotics / administration & dosage


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Prebiotics
  • Rifamycins
  • Rifaximin