SIBO Part 1: What is it and what do we actually need to treat?

*Note: This article concerns a specific condition, but the themes discussed apply to many conditions. Read on if you feel inspired!

There are many names for the nonspecific digestive symptoms that could mean that you have S.I.B.O. (aka Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth). A few of them include irritable bowel syndrome, gas, bloating, heartburn, nausea, tummy troubles, constipation, diarrhea and so on. It turns out that about 60% of people who would get the diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome if they talked to a conventional medical doctor actually have this syndrome called SIBO. It’s a condition where the bacteria that normally live happily in your colon (aka the large intestine aka further down the digestive pipes) begin to grow in large numbers in the small intestine. The pattern of symptoms that may mean you have this condition consists of digestive disturbances such as those listed above, usually worsened by eating foods rich in fiber like apples, raw vegetables, ground flaxseed, whole grain foods etc. You also might have noticed a seemingly random improvement in your digestive symptoms when you took antibiotics for some unrelated reason. For many, these symptoms come on after a bout of food poisoning, though for some it’s hard to pinpoint when they started, or they have been going on for so long that you can’t remember the origin story.

The trouble that I see with this label of SIBO is that it simply describes your current predicament, but not how it came to be, or how to unravel the root causes so you can actually heal. No two people experience SIBO the same, because their bodies are reacting individually to a unique set of stressors. This is a problem that applies to any disease, and explains why a given treatment for a given disease only works for some percentage of those people with the disease.

The concept of a disease is an interesting thing. I know this sounds like the beginning of a long philosophical musing, but stay with me for a moment. In conventional medicine certain symptoms are often lumped together, given a name, and considered to be a specific disease. For example: if you are coughing and sneezing and have a runny nose and low energy, that “disease” is called a cold. If you have a burning sensation in your chest after eating certain foods, that’s called acid reflux or gastro-esophageal reflux disease in medical terminology.

The thing is, this is a reductionist way of looking at things. People develop similar symptom patterns that could be lumped into disease categories for different reasons, and if you just lump them all under the same disease title and give them all the same treatment, you’re missing the why of it, and therefore missing the opportunity to treat the root cause so the person can heal and eventually stop needing treatment.

So instead, what if we looked at each person as an individual and approached symptoms in a different way. If someone comes to me with burning in their upper chest after eating certain foods, I think “This person’s body is responding in the best way it knows how to a stress or a combination of stresses in their environment. Why is that? What are the stresses at work here? (And I’m not just talking about emotional stress, though that plays a role.) What can we do to shift this pattern? I find this approach to be much more successful in helping my patients to feel better.

So what about SIBO?

Now, we could do testing, identify SIBO, leave it at that and treat each person with SIBO the same... But that would not be very successful because SIBO is actually a result of deeper imbalances that vary from person to person. These imbalances may be in the digestive tract, endocrine system, musculoskeletal system, nervous system, immune system or mental/emotional system (or likely a combination!). If we don’t figure out where these imbalances lie and address them, then the so-called disease will just keep coming back over and over again.

Stay tuned next month for a discussion of the types of underlying imbalances at work in SIBO.

If you are ready to receive some individualized support with your health concerns, please be in touch. 

Wishing you vibrant health, 

Dr. Jennea

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