We all have a trillions-sized dose of bacteria in our gut – we need these guys for digestion, immunity and nutrient absorption – but sometimes things can get a little out of control. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is a condition affecting, well, the small intestine, and if you’ve got it, you'll likely experience a host of distressing symptoms, from diarrhoea to malnutrition – here’s what you need to know.
SIBO is dangerously underdiagnosed, with information around its reach and impact in Australia severely lacking – though we do know many of us are living unknowingly with the condition. We also know that SIBO is on the rise globally with rates that make those of the obesity crisis pale in comparison, especially in the US – just take a look at the rates around the world:
- USA: 55% of the population
- Southeast Asia: 37%
- Iran: 37%
- Europe: 23%
- Canada: 10%
Yikes. USA is in the lead with over half the population estimated to have SIBO, with research drawing a direct link between diseases like type 2 diabetes – which can be triggered by excess sugar consumption – and these soaring rates. Considering our highly-processed diets here in Australia, the fact that we’re downing around 15 teaspoons of sugar a day and our over one million diagnosed cases of type 2 diabetes, it’s safe to assume this condition has a strong foothold on the population.
What is SIBO?
SIBO is a condition affecting the small intestine, characterised by an overgrowth of bacteria – and these usually the kinds of bacteria that should be in other parts of our gut instead. Often time, a few simple lifestyle changes can be enough to reduce the symptoms. This condition often comes about after another illness, or even a surgery, affects the intestines and causes food to move at a slower pace through the gut. It can also slow the movement of waste, which creates a welcoming environment for a host of bacteria. These then overwhelm the small intestine, leading to some distressing symptoms which come with the territory. They include frequent diarrhoea, unwanted weight loss, malnourishment and dehydration, along with inhibiting our body from absorbing the much-needed nutrients in our food. Let’s take a look at some of the risk factors:
- Older age:As you get older, your body produces less gastric acid – this is essential for processing food – making you more vulnerable to digestive issues.
- Intestine shape:Some people have an abnormally-shaped small intestine – this can make the food move through your gut at a slower pace, giving unwanted bacteria a chance to populate your small intestine.
- Conditions: Fatty liver disease, type 1 and 2 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease have all been considered as risk factors in a number of studies.
There are a few other conditions and surgical treatments that can spike your chances of developing SIBO due to their effects on the gut:
- Gastric bypass surgery
- Radiation treatment – this can cause scar tissue
- Blockages in the gastrointestinal tract
The signs of SIBO
- Decreased appetite
- Nausea and abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Uncomfortable fullness after meals
- Improper absorption of nutrients
It may even cause what are known as “silent” symptoms – these affect our mental health and other areas of the body that one might not think to associate with SIBO. They include the following:
- Brain fog
- Low mood
- Joint pain
There are also a number of consequences we may not see with SIBO – this includes damage to the intestinal walls, which can lead to nutrient malabsorption, along with intestinal inflammation and gut permeability, leaving us vulnerable to infection and disease.
Diet and SIBO
Highly-processed, high-sugar foods are your ticket to developing SIBO – this is not only because of their effects on our gut microbiome, but also because they can lead to high blood sugar levels. This can therefore result in type 2 diabetes, which, as we mentioned earlier, is a major risk factor for SIBO.
Take a look at some of the foods to eat instead:
- Whole fruits and veggies
- Fermented foods
- Seeds and nuts
- Eggs, fish and tofu
- Legumes and whole grains
Fermented foods are especially important for gut health, and this is because of the role they play in delivering those much-needed nutrients to our gut – including our small intestine. The small intestine thrives on bacteria like Lactobacillus, which you’ll find in yoghurt, sauerkraut, kefir and sourdough bread. One study found that just 10 weeks of regularly eating fermented foods significantly improved the immunity and inflammatory responses of participants. As such, it could help reduce the severity of those risks and symptoms associated with SIBO, with this research directly linking the use of probiotics to a reduction in symptoms. So, whip out the kimchi and kombucha!
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