What is SIBO and How Can It Affect Your Gut?


A woman is lying on a couch with her hands grabbing her stomach in discomfort

Symptoms such as chronic gas, bloating or abdominal cramps may be common, but they aren’t normal. They may be telling you that something is out of balance in your digestive system, so pay attention! These are just a few of the digestive symptoms that can be a sign of bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, also known as SIBO.

Your gut should be populated with a healthy ratio of friendly bacteria. And more people are becoming aware of how important gut health is to overall health. Probiotics and foods such as yogurt, kefir, and kombucha are popular. They are full of beneficial bacteria that are great for your gut health.

But the question few people can answer is, where should most gut bacteria reside? Surprisingly, not in the small intestine.

Relatively few bacteria typically live in the small intestine. There are 10,000 bacteria per milliliter of fluid that live in the large intestine. Compared to that only 100 bacteria per milliliter of fluid are found in the small intestine. When a person is healthy, their gut typically contains 100 times more bacteria in the large intestine than in the small intestine.

However, some people have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, also known as SIBO. And if you have SIBO, you most likely will be experiencing unpleasant symptoms such as gas, belching, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.

What is SIBO?

Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth happens when too many bacteria colonize the small intestine. And we’re not talking about harmful, dangerous bacteria either. SIBO is an overgrowth of normal bacteria, that have ended up in the wrong place. In some cases, bacteria from the mouth can make their way into the small intestine. But more commonly, SIBO usually happens when bacteria from the large intestine get into the small intestine.

When the bacteria are in the right place, they are beneficial for the body. For example, in the large intestine, this bacteria aids in the production of vitamins and short-chain fatty acids. On the other hand, in the small intestine, too many bacteria may be damaging to your health.

SIBO may even be the underlying cause of your digestive problems or chronic pain and inflammation. If you have improved after changing your diet, and not showing any positive indicators on a GI pathogen stool test, SIBO may be to blame. 

What are other signs of SIBO?

In addition to the symptoms above, SIBO is responsible for several other common signs of systemic imbalance, including:

  • Abdominal pain/cramps
  • Nausea
  • Heartburn
  • Acid reflux
  • Skin issues (rosacea, eczema)
  • Food sensitivities
  • Anemia and malnutrition

Also, if you frequently deal with headaches, fatigue, irritability, or joint pain, SIBO could be the culprit.

What causes SIBO?

But why does SIBO occur in the first place? One of the biggest causes of excess bacteria in the small intestine is insufficient MMC or Migrating Motor Complex. MMC is your small intestine’s diligent janitor with an incredible work ethic. The MMC “sweeps” and moves bacteria and debris down into the large intestine. This MMC action occurs in between meals and during fasting at night. This MMC action prevents bacteria from colonizing in the small intestine. In fact, this sweeping occurs every 90-120 minutes between meals. In a healthy person, the small intestine is swept away by bacteria 11 times a day.

When you have an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine it causes the MMC to do its job less frequently…only three times a day. If you tend to be a grazer and eat several small meals a day, and present with a “pregnant belly” or one of the other symptoms above, you may benefit from eating less often.

In addition to eating too frequently, other factors can negatively impact MMC function:

  • Diabetes
  • GI dysfunction
  • Surgery
  • High histamine levels

More causes of SIBO

In the past have you ever traveled to an exotic destination, particularly a developing country? Food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea can interfere with MMC sweeping action. In addition, certain pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella, e. Coli and C. Difficile can weaken MMC activity. These pathogenic bacteria secrete a toxin that looks like a protein normally found on small intestine nerve cells. Normally, these cells act as an electrical pacemaker for MMC action. However, the immune system not only attacks the toxic bacteria but also the nerve cells. The nerve cells are damaged, preventing proper MMC activity.

How SIBO can impact health

When there are too many bacteria in the small intestine, digestion suffers. That’s because the bacteria break apart sugars and carbohydrates along the lining of the small intestine. As a result, you won’t be able to properly digest carbs. You could also suffer from nutritional deficiencies. After all, these microscopic critters are stealing your food!

Collagen proteins protect the joints. Similarly, the lining of the small intestine contains a protein called zonulin which protects the small intestine. Unfortunately, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth damages this protein. The damage of this protein is a contributing factor to leaky gut and increased intestinal permeability.

SIBO damages the microscopic hairs in the intestinal tract, known as villi. Once the villi are damaged it leads to poor nutrient absorption. The lack of healthy villi negatively affects digestion leading to food intolerance. But the intestinal dysfunction doesn’t stop there. Food enzyme deficiency occurs. And then, the immune system starts attacking food particles in the bloodstream as if they were pathogenic toxins. Autoimmune disease lurks just around the corner….

What can you do to overcome SIBO? Testing is your best defense. So many of the symptoms of SIBO are also caused by other imbalances in the body. Testing can help rule out other issues so that you stop spending time guessing at what is going on in your body and chasing solutions.

Contact us to see how our health detectives can help you on your journey to feel good again. 

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