It’s a common misconception that all bacteria are dangerous to humans — that’s easy to think when practically every cleaning product, sanitizer, and disinfectant boasts its ability to destroy bacteria.
Certain bacteria can even produce toxins that damage your cells and contribute to various diseases. However, not all bacteria are bad for you; your body actually depends on some bacteria to function properly.
You probably already know that your body comprises several trillion cells. The roughly 30 trillion cells in the average human play tiny but very crucial roles in the overall function of your body. These “building blocks of life” provide structure for your body, convert nutrients into energy, and perform specialized functions based on their location.
What you might not know is that your body is also home to an estimated 39 trillion microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These little organisms are essential to a healthy life as they carry out several important bodily functions. For example, the immune system depends on microbial cells as they help ward off infections, neutralize toxins, and protect the other cells in your body.
The digestive process is also heavily reliant on good bacteria, which is why there are several hundred types of bacteria species in your stomach. Good bacteria help degrade the food you eat, making the nutrients inside your food available to your other cells and organs.
These nutrients are essential to living for energy, growth, and cellular repair. While digestion would be impossible without bacteria in your stomach, there is such a thing as having too much of it.
What Is SIBO?
Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is when there’s an abnormal increase of colonic bacteria in the small intestine. Each part of the digestive tract requires different bacteria to perform the necessary functions.
Colonic bacteria is necessary for the large intestine (colon), which comes after the small intestine in digestion.
However, when bacteria goes where it isn’t supposed to and slips into the small intestine, it can cause an imbalance in your digestive tract’s delicate ecosystem.
Is SIBO Common?
SIBO can be difficult to track, and it’s unclear how common it is among otherwise generally healthy people. The largest indicator of SIBO is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The frequency of SIBO in patients with IBS ranges from four to 78 percent, as most studies indicate that the two conditions are linked.
IBS is considered the largest risk factor for SIBO, but it’s far from the only one. Other medical conditions that can increase the odds of developing SIBO include:
- Celiac disease
- Chronic renal failure
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Colon cancer
- Crohn’s disease
- Immunodeficiency disorders
- Intestinal lymphoma
In addition to these conditions, advanced age, gastric surgery, intestinal injuries, and abdominal radiation therapy can all contribute to SIBO development. Then again, it’s possible to experience SIBO despite having none of these conditions or risk factors. It often all comes down to your body’s ability to properly regulate its gut flora.
Why Does SIBO Occur?
The human body maintains the balance of its microbiome (i.e. its ecosystem of bacteria) with a complex system of chemical and mechanical procedures. If one of these systems fails to function properly, food and waste products can quickly build up in the small intestine. The small intestine could become a breeding ground for not-so-good types of bacteria, resulting in SIBO.
A few chemicals are used to degrade and break down food in the small intestine. Bile, enzymes, immunoglobulin, and gastric acid are some of the most important chemicals to balance small intestine bacteria.
Medical conditions, gastric bypass surgery, and various medications can prohibit the creation and effectiveness of these chemicals. Small intestine bacteria would then struggle to properly perform their function of degrading food.
Mechanically, the small intestine is supposed to empty its contents into the large intestine whenever it’s completed its tasks. Blockages, twists, or hernias can prevent this essential cleansing mechanism from occurring promptly or efficiently.
The excess food and waste products could become trapped in the small intestine, and as a result, colonic bacteria might creep into the small intestine and cause SIBO.
What Are the Symptoms of SIBO?
The symptoms of SIBO are very similar to several other digestive conditions. As a result, it can be difficult to diagnose SIBO (more on that later).
These are a few of the most common symptoms of SIBO. The intensity, frequency, and the number of symptoms that you experience will vary depending on the severity of your condition:
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Appetite loss
- Feelings of being overly full
- Soft, smelly, and mucus-filled stool
- Unexplained weight loss
How Do You Know If You Have SIBO?
SIBO is generally underdiagnosed for a variety of reasons. Mild cases occur without any symptoms. Moderate cases can often be misdiagnosed as IBS or another digestive condition.
In most cases, a doctor might not even test for SIBO despite a patient experiencing multiple symptoms listed above. Even if the doctor were to test for it, the current methods are far from perfect.
The hydrogen breath test is one of the most commonly used tests to diagnose these types of gastrointestinal conditions. SIBO and digestive intolerances are considered while attempting to diagnose IBS.
The hydrogen test measures the hydrogen, methane, or carbon dioxide emitted from the body. Depending on how much of these gasses are in your breath, it could signify a gastrointestinal condition.
The issue with these tests is that various factors can significantly influence the results. Antibiotics, laxatives, or a failure to fast beforehand can alter the readings.
Another potential issue is that some people have gut flora that naturally produce more methane than hydrogen. For these reasons, doctors can miss SIBO.
What Are Natural Remedies for SIBO?
Most SIBO cases are treated with a combination of several prescription antibiotics. The problem is that SIBO can often return after the antibiotic treatment has concluded.
SIBO is especially likely to return when there is an underlying predisposition for SIBO. For that reason, it’s generally suggested to make a few lifestyle changes that can help diminish the severity and likelihood of experiencing SIBO.
These are eight natural remedies that can help to keep SIBO at bay:
1. Elemental Diet
The first step toward treating SIBO is often to “starve” the bacteria in your small intestine. That doesn’t mean that you should fast or starve yourself. Instead, you can embrace a diet that allows nutrients to absorb more easily into the body. The elemental diet is one effective way to achieve this goal.
Elemental diets contain no dietary fiber or probiotics that stimulate the growth of additional bacteria. There is also a severe restriction on the number of plant and animal-based proteins and no gluten.
Most elemental diets are liquid-based; you’ll drink predigested formulas. The purpose is to give your body the essential nutrients it needs without needing the bacteria in your gut to help extract the nutrients from your food.
Elemental diets are only recommended for a few weeks but can be an essential first step to treating SIBO.
2. Keto Diet
Bacteria primarily feed and grow from the carbohydrates in your food. The last thing you want to do when dealing with SIBO is to produce more gut bacteria that are even stronger.
The problem is that carbohydrates are in a large variety of foods. Therefore, you can adopt the keto diet to restrict your carb intake severely.
The ketogenic diet is based on the concept of replacing carbs with healthy fats. Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient, so you won’t be completely replacing them. However, the goal is to limit your carbohydrate intake to less than 20 grams of carbohydrates each day.
3. Low-FODMAP Diet
Embracing a low-FODMAP diet is an alternative solution to the keto diet. Instead of broadly targeting carbohydrates, the low-FODMAP diet reduces nondigestible and short-chain sugars (aka carbs) that encourage bacterial growth.
FODMAP is an acronym for “fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.”
Following a low-FODMAP diet will eliminate the following foods:
Oligosaccharides are in vegetables such as artichokes, broccoli, onions, leeks, garlic, kale, and cabbage, as well as beans, nuts, wheat, rye, and some fruits.
Disaccharides are in dairy products such as cream, cheese, ice cream, milk, and yogurt.
Monosaccharides are in fruits and sweeteners such as agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey.
- Polyols are in fruits and vegetables, as well as artificial sweeteners.
4. Herbal Therapy
Utilizing the natural healing properties of certain herbs can be an effective method of treating SIBO symptoms. The best herbal supplements for SIBO are high in antimicrobial properties.
You’ll likely need to take a combination of several herbal supplements for a few months to eliminate bacterial overgrowth properly.
Here are a few of the most commonly used herbs that can support positive gut flora:
- Clover or clove oil
- Coptis Chinensis
- Grapefruit seed extract
- Neem extract
- Olive leaf extract
- Oregon grape root
- Oregano leaf or oil
- Pau d’arco
- Peppermint oil
- Pomegranate husk
- Thyme oil
5. Nutrient Supplements
One of the most dangerous effects of SIBO is that it can result in nutrient deficiencies. SIBO prevents the small intestine from functioning properly and inhibits the absorption of nutrients. You’ll likely be malnourished and face a deficiency of multiple essential nutrients.
Vitamins are essential nutrients that play several key roles in your overall health. If you’re experiencing SIBO, you may have a deficiency in vitamins A, B12, D, E, or K.
Minerals are another essential type of nutrient that keeps your body functioning properly. SIBO cases have resulted in calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, or zinc deficiency.
6. Natural Probiotics
It might sound counterintuitive to use probiotics to help manage bacterial overgrowth. After all, probiotics are living good bacteria that help to promote the growth of additional good bacteria.
The main theory is that certain probiotics can replace the SIBO-inducing bacteria and promote healthier mobility in the digestive tract.
Some probiotics to consider include:
- Bacillus indicus
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Saccharomyces boulardii
- Lactobacillus GG
- Bigodbactermimum infantis 35624
- Lactobacillus casei
- Bifidus lactis
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are fatty acids that can have a variety of positive effects on your body and brain. They can also be beneficial for dealing with SIBO as they’re directly absorbed without requiring digestive enzymes.
The majority of MCTs come from coconut oil and other coconut products. However, you can also find MCTs in palm kernel oil and some dairy products.
8. Digestive Enzymes
Digestive enzymes exist naturally in your saliva, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and intestinal lining. Several foods, including bananas, pineapples, mangos, avocados, and honey, contain digestive enzymes.
- Protease breaks down protein
- Lipase breaks down fat
- Amylase breaks down carbohydrates
Digestive enzyme supplements can help treat SIBO in several ways. They can reduce the symptoms, improve nutrient absorption, and allow you to expand your diet.
The Bottom Line
SIBO can be an extremely uncomfortable condition to experience. You can have SIBO for a long time before any symptoms appear. You may want to visit a doctor if you’re experiencing frequent or severe SIBO symptoms; your provider can help to identify the underlying condition causing and recommend treatment options.
Treating SIBO often doesn’t mean that it will be cured forever. Using a combination of herbs, enzymes, MCTs, nutrient supplements, and probiotics while also avoiding SIBO-triggering foods can help keep symptoms at bay.
Looking for more tips on how to support mind and body wellness? Check out the MOSH Pit for more!