SIBO, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, seems to be becoming more and more common, but what is it, and how can we use our understanding of what causes it to avoid or rid ourselves of this problem?
We are increasingly well versed with the idea of a microbiome, along with the fact that our bodies contain approximately 10X more bacterial cells than human ones. We even take probiotics to increase the bacteria in our intestines, so how does it make sense that overgrowth of bacteria is a problem?
The facts are that most of the bacteria in a healthy gut reside in the colon (large intestine). This is the slower-moving part of the gut. Bacteria have more time to establish themselves here. They also assist with digestion, helping us to get more nutrients from our food. A healthy gut biome also means that there is less opportunity for the unhealthy bacteria to establish, so it can help our immune system too.
Although there are studies that suggest SIBO can follow an episode of food poisoning, in most cases is not an infection caused by “bad” bacteria, but instead is caused by the normally good bacteria being in the wrong place. Bacteria that create a healthy colon don’t belong in the small intestine in high numbers. In the colon, they get already digested food and just feed on the waste that’s left, but in the small intestine, they get an abundance of fresh foods. As they feed and thrive on this mostly undigested food they produce lots of gas, causing symptoms such as nausea, bloating, abdominal pain, brain fog weight loss, and malnutrition. In severe cases, increased gut permeability can occur, leading to autoimmune issues, food sensitivities, systemic pain, and other symptoms.
So if the cause of SIBO is having the good guys in the wrong place that leads us to ask the following questions. How did they get there? How do we get them back to where they belong? And how can we avoid them getting in the small intestine in the first place?
1. Don’t eat between meals
By far the most common cause of SIBO is a deficiency in the Migrating Motor Complex (MMC). This is the natural process by which food is moved through the small intestine between meals. For the first two hours or so after eating your body is focusing on digesting the food. Then for the next two hours, it focuses on cleaning the intestines. This is an electromechanical action that propels the semi-digested food through the small intestines and into the colon. It is a vital part of the digestive process BUT it is brought to a halt the moment you eat more food – the body then switches back to digest mode, before it has had a chance to clean out the last lot of food you ate.
So, your granny was right! You shouldn’t eat between meals. Having a break of at least 4 hours between meals is vital to maintain a healthy digestive tract. A break of at least 12 hours overnight is even better, this gives the body a chance to digest, clean, and detox every day.
So if you have SIBO, stop snacking now and have a 4-5 hour break between meals. If you want to avoid SIBO, do the same.
It is worth noting that people with low thyroid function are at higher risk of developing SIBO too, as hypothyroid can reduce that activity in the digestive tract, including inhibiting the MMC.
People with diabetes are also at higher risk. High blood sugar can damage the nerves that control the MMC.
2. Avoid or manage stress
Chronic stress can also have an impact on gastric function. If we are in “fight or flight mode”, we are not in “rest and digest” mode, and the MMC is compromised. I know the world is crazy, there’s heaps going on, you’re busy, there’s so much to do… but put some strategies in place to manage stress, to unwind and relax, as it is vital for all aspects of health, including your digestion.
3. Support your immune system
A compromised immune system is another factor that can increase your chances of SIBO. To keep your immune system functioning at its best, get plenty of sunshine for Vitamin D and eat a diet rich in whole plant foods to maximize your nutrient intake,
Excess estrogens can also have an impact as this can inhibit the release of bile into the intestines. Bile salts have antimicrobial properties and so when functioning optimally reduce the bacteria in the small intestines.
4. Make time and take time when you eat
Low stomach acid and low digestive enzymes can mean that food doesn’t get broken down as much as it should before entering the intestines. You can help your body to produce more stomach acid by taking your time with your meals. Smell the food, eat it slowly, chew it well. This gives your body more time to produce the acids and enzymes it needs. Stuffing in food whilst working or doing other things prevents your body from going through these processes, so take your time. Stop, breathe, smell, let the digestive juices flow. Taking time to give thanks for your food before you eat is a great way to give your body time to prepare for what is coming. Saying Grace has a purpose beyond religion, it’s science too. Pause and be present to what you put in your face.
Digestive enzymes, digestive bitters, HCL supplements, apple cider vinegar, and lemon juice can all aid digestion in the short term, but in the long term, we are all best to change our practices around food, to take time to eat mindfully, and thus help our bodies remember what they were designed to do.
5. Clean and heal the digestive tract
Structural defects from surgery or diverticulitis, and congestion from undigested food matter or mucoid plaque can slow down the transit of food through the system and provide a breeding ground for parasites and bacteria. Cleansing the digestive tract and removing this build-up will allow things to keep moving more easily, and clean out the spaces where things can fester. So many cultures have a history of fasting and cleansing built into their spiritual practice, and once again science is showing that there is way more to this idea than blind faith – it is a health practice as well as a religious one.
If you wish to undergo any type of cleansing, please chat first with a health coach who is qualified to support you in this area. There are many different cleansing protocols and everyone is different. Consulting with a health coach will help you to decide the way that’s best for you.
Emma Bliss is a Certified Holistic Health Coach with Advanced Studies in Gut Health. If you would like to chat with Emma about your health challenges, you are invited to book a FREE discovery call.
This post is for educational purposes only, and should not, and is not intended to, replace medical advice. If you think you have SIBO, please consult your GP for a formal diagnosis and for treatment advice.